The Beguiled Review: The Auteur Successfully Combines Period Aesthetics With Her Signature Mood

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At once totally different from anything in her filmography and still carrying the very essence of a Sofia Coppola film, The Beguiled is a fresh, oddly original entry in the director’s catalogue, which itself continues to expand in ways that pushes Coppola into a class of directors who’s works could fill a course of introspection. The trademarks are all present: deliberately meditative tracking shots, soft lighting out of a dream, the clash of cultural criticism with female empowerment, an inane emotional detachment, and that wry sense of humor. The feeling remains that Coppola may be more interested in being an auteur than a good storyteller, but The Beguiled takes a few steps to remedy this.

Adapting the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, and remaking the 1971 film of the same name—with a fresh 2017 perspective—the story takes place in the midst of the American Civil War, where a small school for girls in the South can hear the canon fire as they eat supper. Led by Martha (Nicole Kidman, continuing her banner year following Big Little Lies) and her greatest support, Edwina (Coppola mainstay Kirsten Dunst), the school takes in a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). But his stay has a profound effect on their reserved way of life. The girls start to giggle at dinner, and Edwina and Martha start a soft war for his affections, with the former gaining the early lead.

Loaded with subtext, Coppola delights in exploring restrained feminine sexuality, and later rewards in showing the characters overcome it in complicated unity. The film’s plot may be presented plainly, but the director shows us what we need to see with an economical precision. At just over 90 minutes, the film wastes no time, laying the story down in a straightforward manner devoid of ambiguity.

Of course, the chief criticism of Coppola remains intact: The Beguiled boasts the same winning combination of astute commentary, gorgeous visuals, and wit, but the film is utterly lacking in emotional accessibility. Watching the film is to watch a very entertaining story, but one the audience seemingly has very little stake in. The outcome of the film is undeniably stimulating, but it’s not impactful in the heart. That’s not to say that Coppola has to be a director interested in getting her audience to feel something, but there are plenty of great films that manage to have it all (look no further than last year’s 20th Century Women).

But The Beguiled doesn’t need to have us feeling much to achieve what it wants to, it just limits the heights the film can reach. Either way, there’s no denying the value of what’s on display here. If you’re craving a Sofia Coppola film, this undoubtedly is a good one. The director remains a powerhouse in mood establishment, and she’s trying new ways in purporting that mood, and the performance she extracts from Kidman is nothing short of exquisite. How she evolves from here will be fascinating to watch, hopefully paving the way for true greatness beyond where she limits herself now. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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