The Beguiled review: Sofia Coppola enters the official competition in Cannes with this new version of the 1966 novel full of Southern Belles and battered soldiers.
The Beguiled review by Paul Heath at the 2017 Festival de Cannes.
Sofia Coppola revives one from the Universal Pictures archive with The Beguiled, a redo of the 1971 Clint Eastwood starrer, directed by Don Siegel, which was itself based on the 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’ by Thomas P. Cullinan.
We open to Angourie Rice in the woods picking mushrooms. It’s 1864 Virginia, three years into the America Civil War. Rice’s young Jane is enrolled at Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a twelve-year-old comes across a wounded soldier hunched beneath a tree out of the enemy’s line of fire. Said solider is Colin Farrell’s Corporal John McBurney, a blue ‘Yankee’ suffering from a severe injury – a gash on his left leg. McBurney asks Jane for help and whether there is any shelter nearby. The young girl takes the suffering corporal to Farnsworth Seminary where he is greeted by headmistress ‘Miss Martha’ (Nicole Kidman) at the gates, along with school teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the other school children Alicia (Elle Fanning), Amy (Oona Laurence), Emily (Emma Howard) and Marie (Addison Riecke). Initially reluctant to take in a solider of the opposing side, they eventually do and tend to his wounds, McBurney completley passed out by this point. Eventually the Union soldier regains consciousness, thankful to the women for their help but with obvious intentions to remain within the safe four walls of the sprawling school. Soon, the house is taken over with sexual tension, rivalries, and an unexpected turn of events.
Sofia Coppola has definitely made her mark in world cinema over the years. With a career that started under the shadow of her family with extraordinary filmmakers with exceptional pedigrees, Coppola carved out a niche on the indie scene with the superb The Virgin Suicides, which kick-started a 20-year working relationship with Kirsten Dunst. An Oscar win followed with the career-making Lost In Translation, and then different turns with the likes of period drama Marie Antoinette, and then Hollywood-set drama Somewhere and also The Bling Ring, which debuted in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The Beguiled sees the talented screenwriter adapt original material, but elements of her previous films can be seen in her latest too. Themes of people with injury seeking solace can be drawn between this and Somewhere, as well as the sexual tension so on show in Lost In Translation mixed with the period-patter and setting of Marie Antoinette. Drawing from her previous experience, Coppola has delivered a strong, supremely tight motion picture, full of tense drama with hints of dark comedy.
It is definitely not as graphic in terms of sex and gore as you may expect if you’re familiar with the original material, but The Beguiled still manages to retain the force and passion as the Eastwood version and the novel that preceded it. Running at a shortish 96 mins, Coppola’s film is one of the few which may have benefited from being just a little longer. Following the huge plot device that flips the film on its head halfway through, to which there appears to be a massive and indeed much-needed build up to, the narrative seems to become more rushed, particularly in the scenes leading towards the climax. A little more length may have pushed this to a whole new level altogether, but this doesn’t take a lot away from the enjoyment factor that Coppola’s version of The Beguiled offers.
As noted previously, the cast is limited to just a handful of characters, each one offering a superb performance throughout. Stand-outs are the superb Elle Fanning whose Alicia often remains silent and in the background, but is very much central to the wonderful execution of some of more important scenes in the film. Kidman is brooding and menacing as the up-tight Miss Martha, the actress building upon another great turn at this year’s Cannes in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer – Surely an actress mention is in the bag this year? Dunst is the unassuming teacher with the hots for Farrell’s war-torn battle fearer, but is as equally magnificent as her contemporaries and puts on a career-best show as Edwina. Farrell is one to fall to the background quite easily and he is clearly dominated by women in this film, but the actor has, and continues to show more maturity in each film that he appears in – and the same can be said here. Rice, following up her Cannes 2016 debut with The Nice Guys, has a big role to play here and is almost certainly an actress to remain in the spotlight for many years to come. She’s amazing.
Production and costume design is of the highest order here too. While the sets are limited – most of the film takes place inside the Farnsworth mansion – it is all beautifully staged, which when matched with the brilliant cinematography of Phillippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds, A Good Year) provides a pleasing visual experience.
There was a point in the Palais in Cannes at The Beguiled’s first press screening where the audience kept howling with laughter – never a good sign in a dark drama, but of course Coppola has littered her script with tons of dark humour that is so obviously intentional that it was hard not to join in.
The Beguiled is a luring, intense, all absorbing, absolutely engrossing ninety minutes of cinema that will have you flinching, laughing and most of all having fun all of the way through. Simply divine.
The Beguiled review by Paul Heath, May 2017.
The Beguiled premieres on May 24th 2017 at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It will be released in UK cinemas on 14th July 2017.