In Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the 1971 film of the same name, “The Beguiled” has all the ingredients of a subdued psychological thriller. Coppola just doesn’t know how to make that recipe a reality.
The film takes place three years into the Civil War at a Virginia boarding school for young ladies. Farnsworth Seminary, run by the strict and level-headed Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), is home to five young girls and their timid teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
The ladies’ studious existence is disrupted when Corporal John McBurney (Colin Ferrell) is found near their home wounded and in need of immediate medical attention. His mercenary character is beckoning, complete with rugged good looks and an Irish charm that ignites a spark in the women who begin to care for him. The girls are genteel, with corsets tied, prayers repeated and curtsies displayed every time they greet the Corporal.
The film is slow and stretched out in its first half, complete with shots of hanging willow trees and smoke billowing out from war canons shot in the distance. As the audience is introduced to the characters, they are given very little background knowledge. They’re supposed to gather whatever they can from the shots of the characters’ mundane lives. Coppola displays various tasks the characters complete to give the audience a sense of how boring their days on this rural estate really are.
But these actions become uninteresting and tiresome, whether it’s carefully loading a gun, hesitantly giving a sponge bath or doing enough gardening to make moviegoers never want to see a plow again. They don’t contribute to the storyline much and by the time the last half hour of the film rolls around, viewers will be longing for some sort of climax in the plot.
That climax does indeed happen, but the shift in tone is drastic and feels somewhat out of place. The film is being promoted as both a forbidden love story and as a dangerous drama. Coppola lets the romantic tension build up and then erupt, but never explores it to its full extent. She does let the drama boil at the end, but doesn’t have it simmer before whatsoever. It’s just a searing hot pile of deceit, rage and violence coming at you with full force, with no build up to brace you for the impact.
It is liberating to watch women express themselves and take control of the situations they’re thrown into, but that’s not enough. “The Beguiled” floats along with an interesting premise and a gentle facade, but doesn’t deliver on a full circle plot underneath its only occasionally charming surface.
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