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Film review: The Beguiled

Film & TV

Give toxic masculinity an inch and it’ll take a mile. In The Beguiled, women take a few inches – one might say, “a foot” – back.

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Director Sofia Coppola reunites with collaborators Kirsten Dunst (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette), Elle Fanning (Somewhere) and synth-pop outfit Phoenix for a slice of Southern Gothic cinema.

The film also ushers Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and a few emerging talents into Coppola’s coterie. Their collective performance of Christian repression at war with the will to survive makes for a thrilling picture; one where anxiety grows like a fungus and bursts like a weed.

The Beguiled unfurls next to a Civil War battlefield in Virginia. There, Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) runs a boarding school for Confederate belles, assisted by teacher Edwina Dabney (Dunst).

Life in the autumnal plantation house gets a shake-up when kindly Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) drags home wounded Yankee soldier John McBurney (Farrell). The corporal’s presence sparks tensions – sexual and otherwise. But when he shows his true colours, the sorority’s Southern hospitality takes a turn for the macabre.

Ghastly but charming, The Beguiled spins new gold from fairytale tropes like “big, bad wolf” and “damsel in distress”. Based on author Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name, Coppola’s adaptation is not a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 iteration, per se. Her rendering is that rarer beast: a revenge narrative framed by the female gaze.

Coppola, and director of photography Philippe Le Sourd, weave a pleasantly misandrous tale with a thread of wry humour to boot. Scenes that could have been played for salaciousness, titillation or catfighting are instead taut with tension, tight as a whale-boned bodice. All while Phoenix’s ambient take on Monteverdi’s “Magnificat” breezes in the background.

There’s little wonder as to why Coppola was named Best Director at Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Yet she’s only the second woman ever to win since the prize’s inception in 1946. Her predecessor was Russia’s Yuliya Solntseva for The Story of the Flaming Years (1961).

Will it be another 56 years before a woman wins again? Men could end up with more than a leg on the chopping block.

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