Sofia Coppola’s subversive Civil War–era drama is about an injured Union soldier taken in at an all-girls’ boarding school.
An exquisitely crafted drama of seduction, survival and sexual awakening in Civil War–era Virginia, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled has especially strong performances from Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman as two teachers trying (and failing) to set an example of restraint to their young charges.
Taking place almost entirely within a remote rural boarding school, this slow-burn thriller depicts a small community of two teachers, Martha (Kidman) and Edwina (Dunst), and their five female students. They find themselves sheltering a badly injured Yankee soldier, John (Colin Farrell), an Irish-born Union fighter found lying by a tree outside the gate. As distant cannons rumble, John’s presence in the house means that it’s not just the girls’ French lessons that start to lend Coppola’s film a mildly erotic air.
The source is a 1966 Southern Gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan—later made into a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood—but the scale and restraint of this Beguiled makes it feel more like a short story. It’s a film of great economy, as John realizes that being a seducer and playing his hosts against each other could be his only route to survival. And the women aren’t unwilling: Martha has a moment while giving him a bed bath; Edwina quickly falls into his arms; and young Alicia (Elle Fanning) isn’t far behind. The others have their own way of getting close to him: One gives him a Bible; another enjoys “just talking to him privately.”
It’s a scenario that always feels on the edge of cheap exploitation: the handsome soldier, bed-bound, being eyed up coyly by the women and girls of the household. But that’s not where Coppola takes the story. She’s interested in the women, and especially in how they collectively justify not handing John to the authorities, claiming moral or practical grounds when we can all see what’s going on. Farrell, meanwhile, can do smooth and charming in his sleep, and he does. Powerful, too, is how Coppola plays sex against violence: An early scene of Kidman sewing Farrell’s bloody leg plays as a weird meet-cute; later, she’ll come back to that same leg when she feels spurned.
As with 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, Coppola opts for a gently simmering tension. There’s none of the punk flavor of Marie Antoinette (a restrained score by French synth-pop outfit Phoenix insinuates itself). The Beguiled has its jolts and its laughs, but mostly this glides along like a mildly saucy parable: well-dressed and well-performed.
|Release date:||Friday June 23 2017|
Cast and crew