“What have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?”
The year is 1864, and jealousy and tensions simmer at a girls school in Virginia against the isolated backdrop of the American Civil War.
A young schoolgirl stumbles upon wounded soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the surrounding woodland. Deciding to help, she escorts him back to Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the head of the school, who decides that it would be christian of them all to help nurse him back to health, under the condition that he leaves when she deem him fit. He is a union soldier, and in their decision not to hand him over to the Confederate Army, they are endangering themselves, but unexpectedly, McBurney himself.
Sofia Coppola has built up an impressive body of work, with such interesting films as her feature directorial debut The Virgin Suicides, and 2003’s Lost In Translation. Delving into sinister territory, The Beguiled is a tale of intensifying sexual tension. It is in fact the second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Painted Devil, which was adapted by Don Siegel in 1971. Deviating from Siegel's cinematic reworking of the novel, Coppola cleverly focuses more on the female perspective, and the issues that surface as their relationships boil down to a competition to win McBurney’s undivided affection. His male presence invades every shot. Even in scenes of silence or tuition, the expressions of the female characters suggest contemplation over their desires for the Corporal.
The genius of The Beguiled is in the numerous personalities that inhabit it. Each woman conjures conflicting images, either of fragility, sexual promiscuity, innocence, or command. They each subconsciously wish to pursue McBurney for different reasons, whether it be for escape, male companionship, pleasure, or the presence of a father-figure. It is these conflicting urges and infatuations that create such a burning atmosphere of emulous resentment. One dinner-table scene in which they discuss the dangerously seductive Alicia’s (Elle Fanning) apple pie exemplifies the rivalry that pulses through the film. “My recipe?” chimes Edwina, to which Amy combats, “I picked the apples” - responsibility for the apple pie continues to be debated, and the dialogue is razor-sharp and humorous in equal measure.
As competing forces continue to seduce McBurney, events escalate to terrifying extents. He is dashing, handsome, and deceptive. One-to- one encounters with the females of the house allow him to work his charms, and as this progresses it becomes a question as to which of the women McBurney will decide to woo further, and correspondingly, how will the others react when his choice is made? An unwavering sense of dread is constant, for the most part thanks to Kidman’s impressively stern performance as the martriarchal authority; acting as a driving force for the film’s direction into daunting depths.
The cinematography is absolutely astonishing - along with visually striking locations, it is a visual feast to indulge. An orange southern glow consumes the exhilerating exterior shots; the silhouettes cast from the alluring foliage of the trees is strangely idyllic, equipping the visuals with an integral fairy-tale quality. This is then enhanced with candle-lit interiors which give the film a real authenticity along with its ravishing costuming and composition. Locations
really help to express the isolation and yearning of the female characters, and are breathtakingly realised by Philippe Le Sourd.
Providing a career-best performance for Elle Fanning and an excellent ensemble banquet of captivating performances, The Beguiled is a luxury right from its authentic opening title-card, all the way through to its haunting final shot.