Director Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a project that gathers together much talent on both sides of the camera. But though Coppola’s work as director and screenwriter is commendable (she won a Palme d’Or Award), and the cast is strong and convincing, there is something about “The Beguiled” that may leave one with a sense of emptiness. The performances are good and Coppola does manage to create a sense of tension and uncertainty but it is the story itself however that ultimately doesn’t provide the deep commentary it has the potential to deliver. The uninspiring cinematography also adds to the disappointment that unfortunately, in the end, makes this film mostly forgettable.
Based on the 1966 novel and the 1971 film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, the 2017 version once again tells the tale of deceptive appearances and motivations. In the height of the American Civil War, a wounded Union Army Corporal (Colin Farrell) is found in the woods of Confederate Territory by a young girl out picking mushrooms. The girl is a student at a nearby all-girls boarding school run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) who takes the injured Corporal back to be treated for his wounds.
Tension is immediately built as all the girls and women in the school feel a simultaneous attraction and revulsion to the soldier. Living under a regimented strict system of schooling and prayer, the girls see their order of life totally disrupted by the appearance of this Yankee stranger.
But despite some commendable acting leads by Farrell, Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, there remains a lull to the narrative pace of the movie even in the more dramatic and tense scenes. Overall the film is slow moving, even at only 94 minutes long, with long periods of silence and hushed conversations. While it may be argued that this pace accurately reflects the atmosphere of the school and time period, it still brings a feeling of ennui. After the initial feelings of our characters towards one another are revealed, little else of great interest develops. Certainly, the climax of the story is interesting with a plot twist but to reach it is a long period of slow repetitive storytelling.
The cinematography while quaint in its beauty can also be called rather repetitive. We see the same shots of Martha’s School from the same angle several times. Scenes of the hallways, rooms and dining room of the school are always presented in the same manner. Again some may say this reflects the constrained atmosphere of the school, but together with the slow narrative and the repetitive shots it just further adds to the sluggish pace. There is hardly any new vistas for audiences to enjoy after they’ve watched the first 10 minutes of the movie.
“I loved the idea of the Civil War South, and those trees with the moss, I would read these guides for women about manners and grooming. Everything was about being appealing and not too strong for men. I was fascinated by the idea that they were raised that way—the extreme version of that. And there are no men around.”
– Sofia Coppola (Director, The Beguiled)
And so the discussion returns to the story; while interesting in concept it just doesn’t go deep enough in its tackling of its themes and the motivations of its characters. Besides the obvious themes of not judging based on appearances and finding love and hate in the most unlikely of places, there’s little else that is developed. We don’t know much about the Corporal, Martha or the other girls and what is revealed about them is vague at best. Whether the story is like this due in part to Coppola’s adaptation or because of the original source material is unclear ( I have not read the novel or seen the 1971 version), but for Coppola to want to adapt this would indicate that the original had a little more meat. Why her version was so skeletal is not certain and thus disappointing.
“The Beguiled” has elements of a greater film, but it’s not brought to life well enough to warrant a great recognition. The acting is fine, but our leads cannot save the dragging pace, the repetitive landscape and the un-fleshed out characters that make the movie anything but beguiling.