The routine of classes and prayers at Miss Martha’s school for girls is disrupted by a newcomer: a wounded Union soldier, found by one of the girls, sparks a lot of curiosity amongst the students and the governesses alike. However, when the rivalry between them becomes prominent, all the girls go out of their way to nip the household uprising in the bud.
The Beguiled visually feels like the trademark of Sofia Coppola’s work: the observance of the last sun rays of the day pouring through tree branches brings us back to some of her previous films. This time, however, the use of the candlelight creates a haunting picture; the innocence bathed in the shadows gives each of the ladies a darker shadow to their personality. In the flickering light of candles, the murkier, gothic undertones associated with the era are much more resonant.
As always, Coppola’s skilled observation of femininity turns the story previously told by man upside down and adds a refreshing perspective to it. Her exploration of adolescence and loneliness are resounding themes in her previous work: we’ve seen delightful portrayals of girls sharing the same space in Virgin Suicides and a striking coming-of-age thunderstorm in Marie Antoinette. Even if she was never scared of the darker undertones to her heroines – think suicidal teenagers, luxury fashion thieves or an overwhelmed young queen tasked by delivering an heir to the French throne – her newest film is unquestionably her darkest turn to date.
There’s a lot of plotting, competition and uncertainty that create an unsettling image. She helped the cast create a fascinating bond between each other: their interactions flow phenomenally, and the connection the actresses have makes their closed circle much more captivating to watch. Sofia Coppola makes stellar use of female gaze: the scene in which Miss Martha washes McBurney’s body emanates with subtle eroticism. The discreet stares, blushing faces and flashes of uncovered skin from the ladies in the competition from each other are difficult to miss; however, the final act makes them rise above the desire, reversing to the sisterhood theme. They’re far from being objectified by trying to get the man’s attention: they use their charms as their power and can make the tables turn in the matter of seconds.
All of the characters are challenged by the raging civil war, be it by losing someone on the battlefield, or simply by being forced to remain in a place that trades excitement for relative safety. The cast reveal the painful tinges of their characters with convincing sharpness, telling the audience about the experiences that put them in a particular place in life that they now represent.
Nicole Kidman delivers a stellar performance as rigorous Miss Martha, creating a confident woman who is not scared to stand up for herself and the girls she takes care of, picking up a gun when she heads for the door to greet strangers. Elle Fanning takes on a teenage coquette trope, but she can easily make her background and motivations shine through; well aware of conventionalities of her world, she slips into them when the situation deems appropriate and makes them fit like a glove. Kirsten Dunst, who has previously taken lead roles in Coppola’s films, drowns in the loneliness even if she’s always surrounded by people, a rebel living in the romantic world springing outside of the place she’s confined to. The soldier becomes her knight in the white armour and the incarnation of her dreams of the different life she could be living. There’s distant suffering embodied in the man that arrives in the house, the smell of the world behind the barricades, and newly found desire.
And so, the things become even more enthralling when we introduce Corporal McBurney, played by Colin Farrell. From the very beginning, he seems to be having a lot of fun with his character. Making the ladies admire him might seem difficult as he’s the personification of the enemy, but the anecdotes he tells make him win the women over. Reading the faces and gestures of his carers, he quickly realises that he can manipulate his benefactors and take control over them by telling them what they want to hear. But playing games in such a closed circle is difficult to sustain long-term. To make their relationship even more interesting in the grand scheme of things, the question of who really is the beguiled remains open.
The Beguiled opens in the UK on the 14th of July 2017.