Some directors move fast and stylish; others are more meditative and lingering, and Sofia Coppola is definitely the latter. Many of her films, such as 2003’s Lost in Translation, will hit a point where they either have you, or they won’t, and just like Lost In Translation, her new film, The Beguiled, certainly had me. Set during the Civil War in Virginia, an injured Northern soldier is taken in at a girls’ school, where his presence threatens to break apart the close, yet strained, relationships of the women who live there.
The Beguiled is a slow-burning Civil War snapshot that, at only 90 minutes, spends it first half or so diving deep into the lives of the very different women who live there, and the upset of Corporal McBurney’s arrival. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) loves her work and her girls, but seems lonely for new company; Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is desperate to leave and fall in love, as she had before she came to the school, and McBurney’s arrival offers to her the possibility of a new life. And while the younger girls develop friendships and small crushes on their wounded soldier, the older, teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning) is exploring her sexuality and sees McBurney as her opportunity to escape the repression of the restrictive southern girls’ school.
Sofia Coppola’s masterful direction highlights the complexities of their relationships: her lingering shots of the beautiful estate and its grounds allow the story to breathe, followed by closely framed, tight shots that trap your breath in your chest, inspiring in you the claustrophobia that these women experience. Coppola captures the intricacies of female relationships, the natural jealousy and competition that arises in such cramped living spaces, supplying the film with its almost inappropriately dark humour, but also its incredible closeness and the family dynamic it creates, as these women are a family.
Kidman’s Miss Martha is the caring but stern matriarch, leading the ensemble with brilliantly cold poise and watching over her four younger women – Amy (Oona Lawrence), Jane (Angourie Rice), Maria (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard); Kirsten Dunst’s more emotionally impulsive Edwina is regrettably relatable and tragic, especially with Dunst’s intricately expressive face; and Elle Fanning’s overtly sexual Alicia may not even be the petty and selfish middle child she first appears as, as Fanning gives her such mystery. Yet despite their differences, they band together and look after each other when things get intense, which they do.
Because Corporal McBurney is not to be trusted: spinning lies to each of the women, he worms his way into their hearts and creates bitter divisions within the school, seemingly becoming the most powerful person in the estate. Coppola’s slow burn here turns into an all-out fire, pushing her characters to breaking point, but she never breaks them, for power is never what it seems in The Beguiled. Despite being a period piece with an undercurrent of female jealousy, the women’s bond is never completely broken, and they stay strong together when the tables eventually turn. This is the ultimately feminist message of the Beguiled: when worst comes to worst, women will do what it takes to look after each other. 9/10.
Here’s my list of my five favourite films starring the cast of The Beguiled:
- Moulin Rouge! – Nicole Kidman
- Spider-Man 2 – Kirsten Dunst
- The Nice Guys – Angourie Rice
- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Colin Farrell
- Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola
Photos taken from IMDB.com: