When you think of the American Civil War, chances are you think of grandiose white porches, women in bustling skirts and more than a hint of melodrama. Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled has all of this – by the bucketload – but really fails to ever be anything more than style over substance.
The premise is simple enough; Amy (Oona Lawrence) discovers a wounded Yankee soldier, John (Colin Farrell) in the woods and takes him back to recuperate in the seminary / boarding school where she lives alongside five others. Naturally, all of the women are suspicious of having a male amongst them, especially one who happens to be fighting for the other side of the divide. His presence leads to feelings of jealousy and lust – two emotions that were previously unheard of in the pristine, suppressed school.
There is a whole lot of swarthy, brooding looks across rooms; lips slightly parted in a pout; wry smiles in the corners. It feels even more hyperbolic than a traditional melodrama because there is literally no time between Farrell’s arrival at the house and the five women absolutely losing their minds – and their bloomers – over him. And, whilst Farrell isn’t exactly awful to look at, the leap seems too much.
Nicole Kidman does her usual whispering and crying her way through the film – seriously, the woman literally only has two acting styles and those are it. Her Southern accent slips all too frequently and it’s far too hard to believe that someone who spends their life dressed like a china doll would suddenly lean in and plant the lips on a horny soldier.
Kirsten Dunst does the most reasonable job, as poor Edwina Morrow; a woman, who, if she could wish for anything in the world, it would be to be as far away from the seminary as possible. She spends her life turning teenage girls into society ladies and clearly would rather be doing anything else. The small glimmer of hope that John offers her – as well as a wee tumble under the sheets – is the only thing that brings a smile to her face.
The problem is that the characters are so two dimensional – even Elle Fanning is skulking around like a pantomime villain – that it’s almost impossible to care about them. I mean, you will literally give no fucks about these people. When a ninety minute film feels like an endurance test, then something is wrong. The script leaps from one situation to another. One minute all the women hate having John in the house, the next they all want a shot at him, the next he’s turning a gun on them. It literally makes no sense and, despite all of these plot points, it’s really fucking boring.
One thing I will say in favour of The Beguiled, is that the cinematography is very good. The shots are so tight that you can practically feel the oppression of the seminary. Having most of the scenes swathed in darkness only adds to that feeling. It’s only when some of the characters step outside that you realise how chokingly tight it is inside the house. The costumes are also beautiful, particularly when the women dress for dinner.
I really don’t know how Sofia Coppola managed to scoop the best director award at Cannes for this film. It was really tiresome to watch and I hate seeing good actors – namely Dunst and Fanning – in projects that woefully misuse their talents.
Sadly, The Beguiled is definitely lacking in Southern charm. And an actual story.