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The Beguiled

I still can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see a Sofia Coppola film. I’ve heard wonderful things and select films of hers have been on my list for some time, I just never got around to them. Luckily, it seems like this might have been a decent one to start with.

The Beguiled takes place while the Civil War is in full swing. Even better, it’s set in Virginia — technically on the Confederate side of the faction line, but only just. Our stage is primarily set in a women’s seminary, housing four young students (played by Elle Fanning, Oona Chaplin, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard), a teacher (Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst), and the headmistress (Martha, played by Nicole Kidman).

Things are tense enough — since the slaves all ran away and Union soldiers have come in raiding on a regular basis — and then along comes the wounded Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Farrell. He’s a Union soldier in Confederate territory, an Irish immigrant on American soil, a red-blooded man surrounded by chaste women (most of whom are little more than children), and a stranger in a house full of tenants who know each other intimately. Yet these women agree to keep him around (albeit grudgingly), at least until his leg heals.

I’m sorry to say that this is one of those unfortunate plots that only works if every single person involved is an idiot. There’s really no logical reason why these ladies keep John around or indulge an attraction to him, and the movie finds all sorts of flimsy contrivances to make the conceit work. That said, there is a kind of emotional logic here that gets at deeper themes.

This is a story about divisions between us. Specifically, it’s about how the differences that lead us to hate and fear each other can also be a cause of fascination and inspiration. Admittedly not a new concept, except that the stranger in this case is Colin Farrell.

A man with Farrell’s stage presence could be friendly just as easily as hostile, an earnest lover just as easily as a womanizing predator. And the film never lets us forget it. For all of John’s charm and good manners, we can never ever forget that he’s a stranger with a history and an agenda that are completely unknown.

What’s potentially even more interesting is the notion that John is the prisoner here. Even if he’s a soldier and they’re all a bunch of unarmed women, he’s still wounded and outnumbered in a house he knows nothing about. And again, he’s a Union soldier in Confederate land, surrounded by women who’ve all lost something in this war. So really, he’s got every reason to be just as afraid of them as they are of him.

All of that said, I want to stress that this one is a VERY slow burn. There are so many scenes and shots in which nothing seems to happen, and it’s just the characters going about their lives. This is a 90-minute film, and it feels like two hours until the plot really gets going. But surprisingly, that’s actually a point in the movie’s favor.

The filmmakers are diabolically subtle in their depiction of how things are changing in John’s presence. A status quo is carefully established, and the film is highly methodical in showing precisely how the characters start to act differently, with a routine that gets disrupted in gradually more noticeable ways. To be clear, these changes are mostly welcome ones, as John gives back to his reluctant nurses and they all take varying degrees of fancy to this stranger from a faraway land.

Even so, the film is never void of tension. Remember, the whole premise rests on the notion of someone being where he doesn’t belong, and in a time of war. Even in those times when nothing happens, there’s still an underlying tension because we know that something┬áhas to happen at some point. Moreover, even as John integrates himself into life at the seminary and there’s a growing trust between him and the residents, the truce never gets any less fragile. There’s a very delicate balance of trust here, and it only takes one minor slip-up to ruin everything.

This naturally means that the more time passes and the more everyone comes to think of John as a friend (or more than a friend, as the case may be), the harder it’s going to hurt when everything inevitably comes crashing down. And when mistakes result in such disastrous messes, drastic measures will be needed to clean them up.

A lot of what makes this film so effective is of course in Coppola’s direction. The shots are haunting in their composition and their editing, not to mention the borderline nonexistent score. It all augments the terrible certainty that something awful is going to happen, we just don’t know when.

Then of course there’s the cast. I hope I’ve made it clear that Farrell was perfectly cast and the strength of his performance is a vital part of what powers the film. He also has extraordinary scene partners in Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman, both of whom beautifully play to their strengths here. Kidman plays the matron who’s always keeping her cards close to the chest, and Dunst plays a beauty burdened with ennui. There’s nobody else who could play these roles like they could, and they both add so much.

As for the students, Elle Fanning also plays to her established strengths as a mercurial young seductress. Kudos are also due to Oona Laurence (previously the only memorable part of Southpaw) and Angourie Rice (who damn near stole the show in The Nice Guys), both of whom continue to prove themselves as remarkable young talents more than capable of holding the screen. It’s seriously impressive how much they were able to do with so little.

That said — and maybe this is just me — but I was frustrated by how uneven the southern accents were. Pretty much the only accent in this film that works 100 percent of the time is Colin Farrell’s, mostly because it’s the Irish brogue he was born with. I’m honestly not sure why the filmmakers decided to make his character an immigrant, but I suppose it’s plausible enough. And anyway, the difference in speech serves to further highlight the social divide between him and the other characters.

To sum up, The Beguiled is an intriguing little film, but it takes a bit of patience to sit through. The “idiot plot” demands a certain level of suspending disbelief, and the deliberate pace takes some getting used to. That said, it’s still an elegant and beautifully crafted film about compassion and paranoia between strangers, and the cast is stellar from top to bottom.

Definitely worth checking out.

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