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MOVIE REVIEW: The Beguiled is a "deliciously sordid affair"

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It’s hard to think of a director working today with a stronger grasp of tone and style than Sofia Coppola. 

From the fever-dream aesthetic of her debut The Virgin Suicides to the candy-coated visuals of her deeply divisive biopic Marie Antoinette, Coppola has been one of cinema’s most consistently elegant voices for nearly two decades now. Even when she’s working with material as vapid as her last feature, 2013’s The Bling Ring, Coppola’s objective touch manages to wring out some thoughtful social commentary and deeply wry humor. 

With The Beguiled, her first feature-length film in over four years, she only reaffirms her status as one of the most intuitive voices in filmmaking today. In many ways a patchwork of themes and ideas that she’s explored regularly throughout her entire career, Coppola nonetheless crafts a sly cat-and-mouse thriller that finds the director nudging herself out of her comfort zone scene-by-scene. 

Set at a girls’ school in Virginia near the end of the Civil War, the plot is set into motion when a young student searching for mushrooms in the woods discovers a wounded Union soldier. As the only source of humanity for miles around, the young woman’s empathy for the enemy soldier overpowers her good reason and she decides to take him back to her boarding school.

Reluctantly taking in the wounded soldier to help nurse him back to health, the women that populate the boarding school are cautiously intrigued by the man. And given that he’s played by Colin Farrell with the sort of smarmy charm that only somebody as handsome as he can get away with, it’s easy to see why. But as sexual tension escalates and the rivalries between the women come to surface, the soldier soon begins to act as a catalyst for all of the sexual tension and unspoken rivalries percolating within the seemingly innocent boarding school. 

In other words, don’t let the frilly pink title font and luscious visuals fool you. While The Beguiled may seem like an airy melodrama at first glance, it has no shame when it comes to embracing its twisted Southern gothic roots. And that’s when it turns into something truly special. 

As the headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth, Nicole Kidman is predictably spectacular as a woman trying to hold her household together in the midst of war. It’s the sort of role that Kidman excels best at, exuding quiet strength with some exquisitely dry humor thrown into the mix. In fact, viewers might be shocked at how surprisingly hilarious The Beguiled is given its dark premise. A dinner scene near the middle of the film isn’t heavy on dialogue, but Coppola manages to wring belly laughs out of nothing more than some wistful glances and a slice of apple pie. 

It certainly says a lot about the caliber of the acting in The Beguiled that Kidman isn’t even the best performer of the bunch. Kirsten Dunst is the beating heart of the film as Edwina, Miss Martha’s second-in-command who breaks your heart one moment before filling it with anger the next. The boarding school has been completely sheltered from the outside world, and Edwina is a walking embodiment of the resulting loneliness and resentment that comes from a life as mundane and devoid of joy as hers. 

But whereas this alienation makes Edwina passive, it's only made Alicia aggressive. Played by Elle Fanning, her performance is a collection of sensual stare-downs with the soldier and poor decisions that will forever affect the lives of the women at the boarding school. In that sense, the wounded soldier comes to represent the things these women desire more than anything else: attention, freedom, lust, and everything in-between. And when these women act on their impulses and the soldier overestimates the power he holds over these women, that’s when the film really lets loose. To say anything more would spoil all the fun that makes The Beguiled such a deliciously sordid affair. 

To call The Beguiled a period piece almost misses the point completely. Similar to the way that Marie Antoinette isn’t a straightforward biopic, The Beguiled is part thriller, part existential drama, part body horror, and all Coppola. The director proves herself to be such a master of suspense when it comes to blending low camp with high art that it’s enough to make you wish she would dip her toes into genre fare more often. 

The Beguiled not only continues Sofia Coppola’s streak of films that emphasize female detachment but pushes it to delirious new heights. It’s a Trojan horse of lushly beautiful surfaces whose dark interiors are revealed as life at the boarding school slowly unravels with every set-piece.

But no matter how twisted The Beguiled gets, it’s always within a sort of controlled chaos that only a director as self-assured as Coppola can pull off. It’s no wonder she won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year for her work on the film. From the flawless casting to the deliciously moody atmosphere, The Beguiled is a powerful exploration of the angst and loneliness that comes with the formation of female identity. 

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Keaton Bell

Born in Minnesota but raised in Oklahoma, Keaton is a senior at the University of Oklahoma...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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