The Beguiled (2017)
dir. Sofia Coppola
written by: Sofia Coppola
starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrel, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence
Expectations are dangerous things, particularly when they are high. With Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled, that isn’t an issue with quality. The story of a Civil War-era girl’s school on the edge of battlefields is a stark visualization of American history, but when expecting twisted but receiving understated, head space can hinder appreciation. Much like my constant disappointment in any trailer that isn’t Atomic Blonde or Blade Runner 2049, the trailer led me to believe more sinister holdings would befall the Virginian schoolhouse. Coppola’s film maintained lady-like subtlety, but my preparedness for insanity may have hindered a proper appreciation.
Nicole Kidman rises above the role she is given to provide likely the best female performance of the year, next to Nicole Kidman in Big Little Lies. Nicole Kidman does not throw shade; she is shade. Her headmistress Miss Martha is a no-nonsense head to a wartime school of uppercrust girls unable to return to their war torn homes. Restrained in her behavior toward the wounded Yankee in her home Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell, a character never fully fleshed out) and stern with her wards, Miss Martha bubbles with lonely intensity, aggravated more so by her responsibility to young, impressionable women. Kidman’s piercing eyes permit all the ferocity a Southern lady is permitted to emote, and each moment is a struggle to maintain the order she sees fit.
Fitted with Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), an instructor with a fervent desire to be elsewhere, Miss Martha’s grasp of household stability lands on her shoulders alone. Melancholic Dunst relives her ample Coppola history with further sadness. Her grip for externalized joy leaves her a shell in her current location. Elle Fanning continues her dominance as the obstinate teenager role. So much angst built over her already expansive career. Oona Laurence, who already surprised last year with scene stealing roles in Pete’s Dragon and Bad Moms, capitalizes on her role with a thick Georgian accent and a good nature. Graced with an age slightly younger than her boy-crazed cohorts, she lands in a place of friendship with McBurney. Her gentility is counterposed with sensibility places her as an unbiased force in a competitive household.
Eroticism dressed in lace, bathed in sunlight, and filtered by mangroves lends an atypical aire to this period piece. Exploring desire in female sexuality and isolation, Coppola developed a shadowed, beautiful construction for her characters. Corporal McBurney as manipulator fulfills eras old male ego trying to guide the emotions of the women around him. The results of his behavior reap dangerous results. Emotional and physical attraction can guide reasonable people away from reasonable actions. The shame, jealousy, and expectations that can surround sexual experience are hardly a subject with which to play. Coppola’s film is hardly a morality play–all’s fair in love and war–but the thesis is closer to “women won’t put up with your shit.” The villain in the story is manipulation, not North vs South allegiance, unusual for Civil War positioning. Common human decency fades when personal expectations of another are twisted; let’s just try to not be terrible to each other.