Though an only decent adaptation, The Beguiled is deftly directed by Sofia Coppola, giving room for the cast to shine in their performances.
The Beguiled takes place three years into the American Civil War in the South, when a young student from Ms. Farnsworth’s Seminary, Amy (Oona Laurence), stumbles upon a wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who she helps back to the house. Due to the war, Ms. Farnsworth’s Seminary is largely deserted, with only Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and a single teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), caring for the remaining students: Amy, Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard), and Marie (Addison Riecke). Although Martha is hesitant to bring the Yankee soldier into her school – and some of the girls detest the idea – her southern Christian nature wins out and she takes him in.
While healing from the leg injury that caused him to flee the fighting of the war, John ingratiates himself with the women and girls of the house, all of whom quickly warm up to the soldier. Still, though Martha begins to enjoy the company of John, she wonders what to do about his presence and whether she should alert any of the Union soldiers who pass by or through Ms. Farnsworth’s. When one night upsets the peaceful balance the residents of Ms. Farnsworth’s had found, Martha, Edwina and the girls are confronted with the reality of their situation. As a result, they must contend with their feelings toward John and decide what to do in order to ensure their safety.
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, The Beguiled is adapted from the 1966 Southern Gothic novel written by Thomas P. Cullinan, which was originally published with the title A Painted Devil. The book was first adapted to the screen in 1971 by Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood as the Yankee soldier. While the film itself wasn’t a hit, it was well received by critics at the time, and has largely held up as a classic Southern Gothic film. For her part, Coppola puts her own spin on the source material with her direction and condensing of the core group of characters (largely by eliminating the character of Hallie, a Black slave working at Ms. Farnsworth’s). Though an only decent adaptation, The Beguiled is deftly directed by Coppola, giving room for the cast to shine in their performances.
One of The Beguiled’s biggest strengths resides largely in the incredible Southern Gothic feel of the film, brought together through the production design of Anne Ross, the set decoration of Amy Beth Silver, and especially the beautiful costume design by Stacey Battat. Thanks to these elements and the directing by Coppola, The Beguiled is an immersive and atmospheric film that simply looks amazing. Under her direction, the camera often lingers on the setting of Ms. Farnsworth’s Seminary in the Civil War South, allowing viewers to revel in the lush greenery or the way the sun reflects through the trees at sunset. Similarly, the contrast between the crisp costumes of the Ms. Farnsworth’s ladies and the war-affected aspects of their surroundings provide for compelling visuals. Altogether, The Beguiled is a beautiful film – and one that gives viewers the extra moment to appreciate it.
For their parts, the cast also excels in the grand landscape of The Beguiled with their performances. Kidman is a standout as Martha, the incredibly strong matriarch of Ms. Farnsworth’s who hopes to set a good example for her students while wrestling with what to do about the Yankee soldier. Both Dunst and Fanning bring a hint of depth to their characters, though they aren’t exactly given the room to explore those depths. Edwina and Alisha are largely constructed from the archetypes of recognizable female characters and never quite reach a point of being fully fleshed out. However, Farrell is another standout, bringing a great amount of charm to the corporal, but offsetting it with some darker qualities that are especially highlighted in the third act of the film.
Where The Beguiled struggles is balancing the instances in which the film shows viewers what’s going on between the ladies of the house and tells viewers explicitly through dialogue or imagery that’s too on the nose. While there is a great deal left unsaid about the various relationships of the women and girls of Ms. Farnsworth’s, both among themselves and with John, the aspects that are crucial to the plot are mostly said out loud and often repeated, seemingly for the benefit of the audience. As a result, the relationships and dynamics among the characters remain largely surface level, which proves to be a problem when the major conflict of the film arrives abruptly – only to be just as quickly squashed and moved past. It makes for a somewhat disjointed drama, one that doesn’t quite capitalize on the potential The Beguiled lays out in its premise and characters.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of The Beguiled is the conversation on gender dynamics it inspires. While the younger girls of Ms. Farnsworth’s are won over and become enamored by John – none more quickly than Amy – Alicia, Edwina, and Martha harbor somewhat more complicated feelings toward the Yankee soldier. And, for his part, John is the roguish soldier, charming suitor, and the complimentary gentleman for each of the older women. That is, until he isn’t. The third act of The Beguiled attempts to flip the relationships of Ms. Farnsworth’s on their head, but rather than subvert expectations, this particular turn feels like a shallow attempt at thrills. All told, the conversations on gender dynamics in the Civil War South – and how they parallel those of our modern era – inspired by The Beguiled may be more compelling than the movie itself.
That being said, The Beguiled does offer a stylish entry in the Southern Gothic genre that will no doubt intrigue fans of Coppola’s work. It’s a rich period piece steeped in the setting and fashions of the South during the American Civil War. And while the cast – particularly Kidman, Farrell, Dunst, and Fanning – bring their best to their roles, the script and story are the biggest hindrances of The Beguiled. Certainly, The Beguiled sets up a compelling tale about the complicated relationships that can arise between men and women, but Coppola doesn’t capitalize fully on the intriguing premise.
The Beguiled is now playing in limited release in the U.S. and goes into wide release on June 30th. It runs 93 minutes and is rated R for some sexuality.
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