Director: Sofia Coppola
Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice.
Runtime: 93 mins.
Australian release date: 13 July 2017
Previewed at: Verona Cinema, Paddington, Sydney, on 10 July 2017.
Set in 1864, three years into the American Civil War, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled takes place in a girls’ school in Virginia that has effectively shut out the war and the rest of the world. The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies is housed in a rambling antebellum mansion, replete with Greek columns and trees dripping with Spanish moss. It’s saturated with an air of neglect and there’s not a slave in sight, so the women have had to maintain their closeted lives alone, ‘fixin’ for themselves.’ Miss Martha’s standards, though, are as rigid as her corsets are tight, in keeping with the morals of the time. This lost world is soon to be disturbed, however.
One day while foraging in the woods for mushrooms, one of the younger girls, Amy (Oona Laurence), encounters a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who she helps back to the school and who is subsequently cared for by its occupants - two older women and five remaining pupils. The other staff and students have fled due to the war. Their daily routine is organised by the headmistress, the eponymous Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and the sole teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). The presence of the handsome man, who’s quick to adopt a slightly self-effacing charm, immediately creates a sexual tension in the house as the women vie for his attention and he, in turn, cons his way into their affections. The ladies start to up the ante on their femininity, preparing themselves more elaborately for dinner, undoing the top button on their dresses, baring more flesh and generally enjoying the disruption to their lives. This potent situation takes a turn for the worse, however, when the corporal is found in a compromising situation with one of the older girls, Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the film becomes distinctly darker.
Coppola succeeds in directing this gothic tale of repression and rivalry in a nuanced manner that runs parallel to the neutral, soft, gauzy tones that Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography beautifully captures. In The Beguiled she returns to a theme she’s explored before - the dynamics of people in close-knit groups - in much the same way as she did in her first film, The Virgin Suicides, and 2013’s The Bling Ring. This is a more subtle interpretation of Cullinan’s novel than Don Siegel’s 1971 film version with Clint Eastwood as the corporal. That’s not surprising though, given the gender of the films’ respective directors. The ensemble performances are pitched perfectly, but Kidman and Dunst are particularly good as two women who are desperate not to feel that love has passed them by. The film’s surprising ending shows that one should never underestimate the power of a woman, or the fury of a woman scorned, regardless of the period in history. How beguiling is that?