Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Film Review: Atmosphere and performance hold up Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled

Whenever The Beguiled heads into the woods or the gardens, we hear cannons fire in the distance. We're in the middle of the Civil War, and the house in which the film is set is clearly close enough to the battlefields to serve as a constant reminder of the world's horrors. Yet, it also acts as a surprising metaphor for the film itself. The Beguiled seems to have something big and explosive around the corner at every turn, but it never arrives - it's more of a distant warning than an immediate threat.

And it both works in the film's favour and fights against it. It allows director Sofia Coppola to create a tense, relentless atmosphere surrounding The Beguiled, one that weighs down on each and every scene, impossible to shake. It also forces the film into a sense of complacency, as if every scene is somewhat lacking in flavour or momentum. The Beguiled is a slow film, and a very quiet one too, but I was never bored by it, yet I can't help but wish it gave me more. I can't think of another film that ticks all those boxes, even if they aren't all boxes you'd want ticked.

Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a girls school in Virginia. By 1854 the school is almost empty, save for fellow teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), teenage student Alicia (Elle Fanning) and four other, younger students. One day, one of the younger girls stumbles across John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods, an injured enemy soldier who has fled the war. The school take him in and agree to allow his injury to heal before they decide whether or not to turn him into Confederate Army.

Safe to say, this plan doesn't exactly go well. It's only a matter of days before the house of women find themselves strangely drawn to McBurney, for a handful of reasons: Edwina sees him as a potential way out of a life in which she struggles to belong; Miss Farnsworth has her patriotic mentality altered by his charm; Alicia, a girl blossoming into a hormonal young woman, has a chance to explore some of the feelings developing inside her. It creates a rift within the house, and one that Coppola portrays brilliantly.

There's a companionship in the film's early moments that demonstrates a group of women and children who work as a team and understand each other. When John falls unconscious on their porch, the way they carry him inside and plan their approach is almost mechanical - you really get the impression of a long-lasting relationship between the seven people. Fast forward an hour and the mood is entirely different, arguments are surfacing with more prominence and jealousy is becoming the house's most intense emotion.

Coppola's direction is stunning. Her command of the frame is deft and intricate, but her images are striking. A woman looking through a veiled window, her face obscured yet her feelings evident. A slow track forward towards the house's gate while the seven women stand on the porch staring forwards, as if we're looking into an environment they're trying to escape. Even when the scenes feel slow and you want Coppola to up the pace a little - something you'll feel frequently - it's impossible to ignore the director's craft. From costume design to production work to cinematography, Coppola is on the top of her game.

It helps that her cast are matching her talents. Kidman is sensational, a commanding performance that flits between scary and sensitive depending on the mood of the scene. She feels authoritative and in control, but there's a constant hint that she could slip from power at any second. Dunst takes on a less meaty role, but her standout moment - in which Edwina so softly talks about how, if given anything she wanted, she would leave the life she has - is performed with quiet power. Fanning is much more playful as Alicia, almost skipping around the frame in a girlish way, but there's a darkness to her behind the eyes. Fanning has complete control over the character, allowing us to find humour in her flirtatious attempts to seduce John but feeling as if it could damage her should she be refused.

The Beguiled is a frustrating film. It's hard to pinpoint why specifically, it certainly does more right than it does wrong, but there's just a sense of unfulfilment to Coppola's version of this story. The Beguiled's atmospheric work is stunning, but it makes promises the narrative has no intentions of keeping. We're held on edge for ninety minutes, but nothing comes to justify the tension - I don't think it's a spoiler to comment that the film's final act is as quiet as its first two. There's some brilliant stuff in The Beguiled, and it's one of the visual standouts of the year, but I can't imagine myself heading back to it any time soon.

In A Sentence

Under Sofia Coppola's exquisite direction, The Beguiled is an atmospheric and uniformly well acted period drama, even if it never coalesces its tension into a satisfying result.

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