Sofia Coppola/ USA/ 2017/ 94 mins
At certain cinemas nationwide now.
Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker who excels in creating hermetic environments and elevating the daily rhythms of her characters with a simmering, hazy filming style that is just one step removed from reality. The sisters in The Virgin Suicides, the opulent detachment of Marie Anionette, and the cosseted delusion of the girls in The Bling Ring; all face implosion when the outside world pricks their bubble. So it is in The Beguiled; a darkly comic, yet restrained chamber piece where the teachers and few remaining students of a girls’ school in Civil War Virginia allow an injured soldier to convalesce in their seminary.
Coppola’s small cast works in beautiful tandem with her pared-back storytelling and economical run time. Colin Farrell retains the charm but dials back the menace of his vampiric turn in the remake of Fright Night as the soldier who turns the head of every resident in one way or another. As he worms his way into their lives, they almost forget that he’s a “blue-belly”, a Yankee that should be handed to the Confederate soldiers that pass by once in a while. Nicole Kidman shows again that she’s really found her niche as an outwardly repressed mother figure capable of lioness passion. It’s the triangle of alternating mistrust and affection between Farrell, Kidman and Kirsten Dunst’s dowdy, melancholic teacher that lights the fire of this woozy melodrama.
There are several delightful scenes – or more accurately, tableaux – Coppola’s camera is still enough to capture the merest twitch of an eyebrow, the pursing of lips, or the hint of a smirk from Farrell as he insinuates his way into various confidences. It isn’t the most dynamic film, but it has a gauzy loveliness that’s part Southern Gothic and part fairy tale. As such, one can see why Coppola scooped the best director prize at Cannes.
There is an argument that the Civil War backdrop isn’t afforded as much weight in the story as it should. Beyond the occasional appearance of grey-suited troops, the women and girls exist in splendid isolation. Even the absence of slaves is waved away without due inspection. “They left,” young Amy (Oona Laurence) simply states to her patient. That Coppola’s film strips the trappings away from an earlier 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood is fine, but perhaps trimming the character of the slave Hallie from the original is a decision bound to raise eyebrows.
The Beguiled is a confident work filled with excellent performances (letting Farrell keep his accent is always a good move). It’s restraint perhaps masks the dark humour, and maybe gives across an atmosphere of self-importance; but Coppola is in real control of the material, and unlike her characters, resists self-indulgence.