“The Beguiled”, based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel and adapted/directed by Sofia Coppola is the film I have anticipated the most. And indeed it did exceed my expectation is what I can say the least. What was more important is how well it was written, allowing not only Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney to turn from a wounded soldier to the most desired man in the girl’s school but also to a man who made a wrong choice in picking a woman who could have decided his fate in any way she could. And she will. They all will. But why and what gets them to make such a crucial decision? Luckily, Sofia Coppola leaves no unanswered question to wonder about, mainly told from a female perspective.
Set in 1864 during the Civil War, Emily (Emma Howard) walks in the woods, singing calmly while collecting her favorite mushrooms, knowing ahead of time how important it is not to pick a poisonous one. All of a sudden, she notices a wounded soldier lying down under the tree and bleeding. She picks him up and helps him to reach the girl’s school where she asks for Miss Martha’s help. From that moment on, a “yankee” from the other side of the country turns into a rock star of the school. Each girl tries to earn his affection; Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) sees in him as the only way out; Alicia (Elle Fanning), as she’s into her sexual awakening, sees in him as an object to satisfy her curiosity, and Martha, the head of the school, a woman who right away sees a soldier as somebody who can eliminate the lack of presence of a man in her life….
“You’re our most unwelcome visitor, and we do not propose to entertain you” tells Martha Farnsworth to John McBurney, when he was trying to show his appreciation to the woman who saved his life. He probably was, but one thing he did not know is that he was bathed by Martha while he was unconscious. During that moment, Nicole Kidman delicately shapes Martha’s personality as a woman who was desperate about an unconscious soldier more than him when he was in sane mind and with plenty of opportunities to take advantage of her silent proposal… With that performance only, Nicole Kidman dances with the craft called acting, showing that to make love to an imaginary partner is more than enough… And when you will watch that scene alone you will most likely agree with me on that.
As the story develops, the characters change significantly when, for instance, Edwina’s despised attitude towards Martha grows and storm arose in the school as a dangerously erupted jealousy takes over all three women’s mind. Elle Fanning’s Alicia has no hope about McBurney and has no intention to build any future with him as long as he will meet her requirements as an object of sexual desire. Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina, on the other hand, is a whole different story, when at some point she will turn herself into the mode – do-or-die, when she allows herself to be taken aggressively by McBurney, turn to be a rape scene shot with one take only.
The beauty of Coppola’s film is that it’s a wonderfully shot period drama with subtle humor and incredible scenery that takes you to the right timeline. Photography was just right, which was another impressive aspect of the film. But acting… The acting in the film was of top level. It has no gaps and had no missing points as every single actor in the film has done an astounding job by capturing well the world of women who were about to enter the path of war for a man who took the Southern hospitality for granted. And Nicole Kidman… There is nothing much to say about her, other than that she is always great in any role she takes. But as Martha, she has expanded her horizon to become an artist, rather than actor, which is way better.
In conclusion, Coppola probably gets the easiest task ever done in her life, having a stellar cast that already knew what needed to be done to make the director’s life easier. Its slow-burning drama gives enough time to the actors to build emotion to the level where they all have to make a decision in order to fix the damage brought by despair, jealousy and uncontrolled desire. In the end, it’s a concept that I am sure some of you will find amusing – when McBurney learns the hard way – to mess with an angry woman is never an option especially when he was at the most vulnerable situation. Fortunately, he will live long enough to learn that, but not long enough to correct any mistakes that may happen in the future….