(2017—Director: Sofia Coppola)
High ★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Sofia Coppola, daughter of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola, continues to be a formidable female voice in modern cinema. With her adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, she boldly and brilliantly stripped the Southern Gothic story down to an island of sexual tension and repression. The crisp cinematography and tight performances work well in tandem with Ms. Coppola’s secure cinematic vision.
Four years into the American Civil War, nearly all the students, teachers, and slaves of the Virginia all-girls seminary of Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) have left. Those who remain include Miss Farnsworth, teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst, Hidden Figures, season two of FX’s Fargo), and five students (including Elle Fanning, 20th Century Women, Super 8). The film starts with one of the younger students gathering mushrooms outside of the seminary compound. She stumbles upon Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, The Lobster), a Union soldier with a wounded leg who has deserted his regiment. The girls at the seminary take Cor. McBurney, both out of compassion and out of fascination for the strange, handsome man suddenly present in their midst. As they tend to his wounds and vye for his attention, little do they know of the sexual tension and rivalries brewing among them that will threaten to destroy the sisterhood that has kept their seminary up and running during such a violent period in American history.
Sofia Coppola’s latest work is a triumph due to how she made the story more universal. The original 1971 Don Siegel film emphasized Clint Eastwood’s McBurney over the women (led by Geraldine Page’s Miss Farnsworth) and kept elements such as the slave character from the novel. Ms. Coppola instead took the Coen brothers’ True Grit route of returning to the purity of the source material. While set in the latter half of the American Civil War, Ms. Coppola’s adaptation succeeds in drawing out the more timeless traits of Thomas P. Cullinan’s tale. Ms. Coppola also complements her adaptation with striking technical crafts, including Philippe Le Sourd’s (The Grandmaster) crisp camerawork, underrated sound design by Richard Beggs and Roy Waldspurger, and an unnerving and atmospheric original score by popular French band Phoenix.
Performance-wise, the adults deliver the goods. A mostly bed-ridden Colin Farrell gets to show off his angry side, Nicole Kidman is reserved and dignified, and Elle Fanning’s coy exterior veils her inner raging adolescent hormones. In between is Kirsten Dunst (who played the title character in Ms. Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette), caught in a tug-of-war between the headmistress and the rebellious student, and accordingly gets to display more complex emotions. Admittedly, the early scenes of the story’s second act (during which the girls begin competing for McBurney’s attention) drift towards tedium and the turns by the four younger students (including Oona Laurence of Southpaw and Bad Moms and Angourie Rice of The Nice Guys) add little to the film. Fortunately from the midpoint onwards, the plot unravels into blistering and unexpected waves of brutality, mistrust, enraged outbursts, and meditative silence beneath an oppressive Virginian sun.
The Beguiled premiered earlier this year at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. At the end of the festival, Sofia Coppola became only the second woman in the festival’s history to win the Prix de la mise en scène or Best Director award. While I look forward to seeing the rest of that festival’s lineup (either later this year or sometime next year), Ms. Coppola’s victory is well deserved and her film will go down as one of cinema in 2017’s richest gems.
(Parental Note: The Beguiled is rated R by the MPAA for “some sexuality”, specifically two passionate but mostly clothed scenes lasting just over a minute combined. A few shots showing a character’s severe leg wound will likely disgust some viewers. That leg eventually gets amputated off screen and the character loudly anguishes over the loss of that leg. Someone eats poisonous mushrooms and dies violently within a few minutes of ingesting them. A pet animal is thrown against the floor. A character uses a gun to take down a glass chandelier and points the gun at other characters, threatening to shoot them.)