The Civil War, especially for Southerners, brings a lot of understandable baggage along with it, given how heavily politicized and manipulated that history has been since the Reconstruction era. I grew up in North Carolina, and I’ve been aware of it for as long as I can remember. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the words “States’ Rights” in describing the cause of the Civil War, and I don’t think I can tell you how many times I’ve sat through Gone With The Wind, as it was a go-to for hungover history teachers in need of peace and quiet. Naturally, those opposed bring plenty of opinions and their own context with them, so this review of The Beguiled is going to be way more subjective than I normally like being.
When I heard that Sofia Coppola was directing a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, I was cautiously excited to see that fascinating and complicated story (which I’ve only ever read about) brought to the screen in Coppola’s modern fashion, made for an era in which we’re tearing down the stone tributes to the Confederate dead and burying them with the cause that they died fighting for.
Instead we’ve received something so bland and vacuous, so accidentally affirming of the worst tendencies of a partisan audience that it unexpectedly courted, that it’ll surely wind up gracing North Carolina high school classrooms in a year or two. The Beguiled is an empty paeon to the fuck-yeah girl power of Confederate Women, an unwitting gift to Lost Causers, and is the only misfire in Coppola’s otherwise amazing filmography.
It’s 1864, at the height of the Civil War, and Miss Martha Farnsworth’s School for Young Women attempts to continue along with chores and lessons, even as the echoed blasts from the Guns of the North slowly grow louder and louder. The school is filled with the daughters of Confederate men, overseen by the headmistress for whom the school is named after (Nicole Kidman) and the sole schoolteacher among the bunch (Kirsten Dunst) who wants to escape from the South and live her life elsewhere. One day, while foraging for mushrooms out in the woods, a young pupil discovers a wounded Union Soldier (Colin Farrell) lying against a tree, and brings him back to the plantation manor where the school is situated, and the women, for not entirely genuine reasons (and in one of the best scenes in the film), decide that it’s the Christian thing to do, to help this poor and *gulp* muscled fellow in need. After he awakens and has recuperated a bit, the soldier, an Irish conscript named McBurney, begins to help out around the plantation (a hard task, given all of the slaves have run off to a more complicated and better film) and begins manipulating the women and girls to avoid capture by the Confederate patrols that march by. And as the sexual intrigue ramps up, so do the potential consequences for all involved.
It’s a breezy 95 minutes, something akin to the kind of cotton candy delicacies they now serve at Michelin restaurants nowadays, where the capturing of and the intense experience of a flavor is only enhanced by its ephemeral nature. It’s like Coppola took that approach when thinking of adapting the source material, in which she’s taken everything she feels she couldn’t effectively tackle (incest, slavery, the Civil War at large) and transformed it into something so efficiently bland it should be served in a plastic cup alongside a plate of chicken tenders, its peel-back foil top reading in big block letters, “Sofia’s Southern Style Sauce: Warning! This Here Sauce Kicks!” But the film is comprised of yardwork, of lessons in the parlor, of recuperating after injury, and the drama is nearly absent until it flickers to life every 15 minutes to remind you that you’re still watching a film with a plot. This is, of course, a Sofia Coppola film, and in some ways could encapsulate much of her filmography, but it’s free of the earnest feeling of Lost in Translation or the gentle anachronism and empathetic beauty in Marie Antoinette, her most underrated and best work. Sure, there’s some occasionally fun humor to be had here and there (though depending on your audience people might not laugh at anything), but dour, tension-free silence is the name of the game here.
Her cast actually does an excellent job with the material they’re given, and Coppola’s shockingly effective at directing children (which might have been foreshadowed in Somewhere, but to a different end), so much of the interaction between the cast feels natural until she tells them to act otherwise. Kidman is playing the kind of role she’s played for the last 10 years, but this time it’s got the Cannes’ Stamp of Approval, so we can rightly commend her for doing a good job without risking twitter call-outs about asking if we liked The Paperboy. Elle Fanning remains A Bright Young Star, and her work here, like most everything else she does, is solid; she’s a young student undergoing a sexual awakening, and she’s stuck on the barriers between girlhood and womanhood. Fanning plays her character’s childishness up to contrast with her burgeoning adulthood, and she does a great job in the role. Dunst is still fire, and, as the sole faculty member of the girl’s school under Kidman’s headmistress, she’s given fascinating characterization and the most action of any character. She’s enormously complicated and in a totally fascinating way, and I suspect she’s going to be what people come back to when they think of this film years down the line. Her interactions with Farrell are amongst the film’s best moments, though much of the film’s pain comes at her expense.
Farrell comes across well here, and he’s given a great deal of stuff to work with, and is easily the most dynamic and interesting member of the cast, just by the nature of the material he’s given. Coppola tries to “exploit” him and his sexuality for the camera, much like the male gaze often oogles women on screen, but it falls weirdly flat, especially since we’ve seen so much success in that area in the past decade, and it also doesn’t help that his true heel turn near the end of the film doesn’t totally work. It’s dramatically inert in some weird ways, and the glorious oddity that is Farrell’s skill set isn’t completely used by the director. That’s not all for naught — his McBurney comes across as a significantly realer character than he might have, and it makes the drama in the first half work well — but when it’s time to embrace the genre madness living underneath the surface in this film, it’s hard for him to make the transition to being essentially the soldier who tries to rape Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind.
It’s a near certainty that Coppola didn’t approach this material with the intent of recasting it as a Lost Cause fable, but despite the hemming and hawing of countless critics out there in the wilds, insisting that No, It’s Not Actually About The Civil War Or The South, the setting remains the film’s defining feature. She’s certainly not trying to make it look ugly: Hundreds of feet of celluloid have been devoted to lovingly capturing the gothic bizarrity of The Beguiled Louisiana-as-South Carolina plantation house, where the Girl’s School is located in the fiction and where Beyonce’s Lemonade was partially filmed IRL, and there’s a stark plainness and beauty to much of the film that feels evocative of Nicolas Roeg’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (which Coppola herself has never seen). She, along with cinematographer Philippe De Sourd, has crafted beautiful and compelling imagery that makes the film impossibly lovely to look at for the first half hour, until you realize that it’s not going any deeper than that, and that Coppola likes the way it looks free of its historical context.
It’s just pretty, empty architecture, absent of the enslaved men and women who constructed it, unintentionally glorifying their captors, free of any genre complications that might distract from the aloof appropriation of an era. And the fact that Coppola, without wanting to offend, omitted something that both prior versions of the narrative had in order to avoid having to deal with the reality of the era, is perhaps an indicator that she shouldn’t have taken on a project about the Civil War to begin with.
‘The Beguiled’ is out today (June 30); follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.