Film Review: The Beguiled

Set in the final throes of the American Civil War, The Beguiled unfolds in an ostentatious schoolhouse in rural Virginia, occupied by seven women: teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and their five remaining pupils. When young Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) happens upon a handsome wounded soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), and brings him into the seminary, he becomes the object of interest to all, from innocent curiosity to thinly veiled desire.

In an attempt to prolong his refuge in the seminary, McBurney coaxes and charms the women one by one, soon finding himself embroiled in an altogether different conflict; he is caught in a silent crossfire of passive aggression, suspicion, and jealousy. A very civil war indeed. The tension escalates steadily, culminating in a glorious crescendo, as opulent as the chandelier which shatters to the ground in the melee.

The Beguiled is gripping throughout, owing in equal parts to director and her cast. Even after the growing tension ruptures, Coppola’s direction ensures a controlled explosion, preventing it from becoming chaotic or clumsy. Further, the entire film is shot beautifully, which keeps it enchanting from beginning to end. Pastel hues of silk dresses, ample use of natural light, and the dim glow of candles illuminating the dinner table at nightfall, all give the film a soft, hazy quality.
Lingering establishing shots impel the viewer to take in the grand columns of the majestic school building and its overgrown gardens, accompanied by the hum of insects or distant booms of war, not threatening enough to bring urgency to the dreamy setting. The stillness and isolation of the house gives the impression that the story is suspended in time, adding to the suspense – like a pendulum slowing, about to swing back into motion at any moment.

Finally, each member of the small cast gives a polished individual performance, and collectively there is a genuine sisterly dynamic. Collectively flustered the girls deftly compete for McBurney’s attention, exchanging subtle glances and carefully selected words, steeped with inferences. Nicole Kidman’s gives a brilliant performance as the strict matriarch, Miss Martha, her perfectly elocuted digs characterising the undercurrent of subtle resentment in the house. Her portrayal has depth as we see her well-kept composure give way, betraying bitterness, fear, and lust. Fanning splendidly depicts the adolescent vulnerability and rebellion of Miss Alicia, the eldest of the students, who is bored of girlishness and self-consciously experimenting with womanhood. Dunst, too, gives a refined performance, however, her role as Edwina affords her less scope to flourish. Lastly, Farrell is charming as ever, employing his rich Irish voice to disarm the ladies with devastating effect. He flickers effortlessly from paternal amusement, to an ardent lover or humble soldier. However, when the tension takes its toll, and the mask slips, his darker side is every bit as convincing as his preceding charisma.

Overall, The Beguiled is a captivating and sumptuous watch. Although it chronicles a simple tale, its triumph is in the care given to subtle details, leaving a rich film with plenty of depth. The beautiful costumes, setting, and lighting all transport you to another moment, and invite you to savour it, too. It is not an obvious film, the viewer must read between the lines, decipher inferred meanings and unyielding porcelain faces, something I found refreshing.


Exposed watched The Beguiled at The Light Cinema.

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