I try not to judge films too much by their trailers. In fact, while I do like watching trailers before deciding whether or not to see a film, there is something inherently patronizing about them. Their entire purpose is to sell the film to potential viewers. They are a marketing ploy, plain and simple. That being said, they are somewhat necessary, and I have been very impressed by well-crafted trailers (whether for films, video games, or other artistic endeavors), and at times have rewatched particular ones purely for enjoyment. Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled has a very convincing theatrical trailer. It looks dark, creepy, and promises an intriguing plot centered on betrayal and revenge. This particular trailer is not one that I would want to watch more than once, but it is good enough to have its intended effect. Upon viewing it for the first time, my interest was piqued. I wanted to see what was going to happen. The reason I begin this review with a discussion of trailers is because this trailer, like so many before it, wrote a check that the film simply could not cash.
The Beguiled is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan, which had already been adapted to film in 1971 (that time starring Clint Eastwood). I have never seen the original, so I will not attempt to compare the two. However, it has been noted in interviews with Sofia Coppola that she did make several changes to the story, for various reasons, some more well received than others.
The film takes place at an all-girls school in Virginia during the American Civil War, where, while picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, a young student at the school happens upon a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell). The girl brings John back to the school, where the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), tends to his wounds. All of the girls are fascinated with John, and eagerly try to catch a glimpse of their new guest. While the girls are torn over whether or not to turn John in to Confederate soldiers as a prisoner of war, Miss Farnsworth eventually decides to conceal his presence at the school until he has recovered. As John regains his strength and is able to walk on his injured leg, it becomes clear that he wishes to stay at the school rather than returning to war. Meanwhile, he develops romantic feelings toward Miss Farnsworth and Miss Farrow (Kirsten Dunst). When Miss Farnsworth discovers John in bed with Miss Farrow, it becomes increasingly apparent that John is not the perfect gentleman that he once seemed, and his stay at the house becomes problematic to say the least.
The Beguiled sounds like an enticing, romantic thriller, but it falls far short of what it could have been, in part by setting our expectations too high. This film should have been an incredibly dark, even horrifying film about the consequences of unbridled lust and betrayal, but instead it is a rather predictable story that never really goes anywhere. Everything in the summary I have given is already shown in the trailer, and nothing interesting happens beyond that. While there is technically a “twist” that is meant to surprise and perhaps horrify audiences, it can be seen from a mile away, and is neither surprising nor horrifying. Instead, it serves as a disappointing end to a rather bland film.
What is most striking about this film, especially considering Sofia Coppola’s talent, is its lack of intrigue and memorability. It is completely forgettable. Additionally, the fact that it is set during the American Civil War is hardly relevant to the larger story. It briefly serves as a backdrop for the plot, but otherwise it hardly plays a role in the film. It could have been set in just about any other time (or at least during any other war) and been executed in the same way. The Beguiled lacks any kind of identity to separate it from the plethora of other revenge thrillers out there. Though there is nothing wrong with The Beguiled from a technical standpoint, it is nonetheless a very boring and uneventful film.
If you are interested in watching The Beguiled, it is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★ out of 5