- Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney
- Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth
- Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow
- Elle Fanning as Alicia
- Oona Laurence as Amy
- Angourie Rice as Jane
Previously filmed in 1971, The Beguiled gets a reworking courtesy of Sofia Coppola and its different approach makes it one memorable movie of mounting tension and burgeoning sensuality.
It is 1864, Virginia and the Civil War is in motion. A young girl by the name of Amy from a nearby school for young girls, is out gathering mushrooms for food. She comes across Corporal John McBurney, a badly wounded Union Soldier and deserter. Helping him, Amy brings the unconscious man to her school. Here we meet the stalwart headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth, vulnerable and melancholy teacher Edwina Morrow, and a few students, including teasing and bored teenager Alicia. There is curiosity among the girls about the man; many thinking it treason to harbor the enemy, but also a pang of sexuality as there hasn’t been a man around the isolated place for a long time. All of the ladies at the school in one way or another find themselves attracted to and curious about the handsome man in their residence. For the protective Martha, he is something that is tempting but troubling to her position of power. To shy Edwina, he is a decent man who seems to treat her with compassion. And to the precocious Alicia, he is something to project her kittenish desires on to. With the other younger girls, particularly Amy, John is something of a mysterious but friendly stranger. McBurney, while convalescing, does nothing to stop fanning the flames he has stoked and proceeds to flirt with the women. Largely, he manages to ingratiate himself into the hearts of the surrounding women, hoping to remain at the school and not return to the battlefield. Yet his trifling with their emotions in such a confined setting, will not be tolerated once fevered feelings finally get aired. The women themselves, particularly Martha, Edwina and Alicia, find themselves vying for his attentions and wrestling with romantic and lustful feelings. Soon events become complex for all the ladies, as the attraction and jealousies give way to irrevocable circumstances that tear the school to pieces in the wake of deception and anguish.
Sofia Coppola is at the helm of this steamy tale of repression and revenge, and goes about it with a finely tuned subtlety that is its chief asset. In comparison with the Don Siegel version that was more lurid and in your face(effectively so too), Coppola’s interpretation is more on the side of suggestion and nuance. Stifled desires and flurries of jealousy are glimpsed in actions and facial expressions, finding an unspoken way to project the inevitable chaos that will ring out soon enough. The tale, under the direction of Sofia Coppola, takes shape from a woman’s point of view, featuring the female gaze as opposed to the male one that so many films favour. John is repeatedly observed and lusted after in a variety of ways, most memorably when Martha sponge baths him and has to stop as her stifled desire is beginning to surface above her ladylike visage. A surprisingly sly wit also courses through the movie’s veins, which is unexpected but most welcome in the end. Themes of isolation and female identity have been explored through Coppola’s filmography already, but The Beguiled finds it in a darker setting. The choice by Coppola to have The Beguiled focus on the women primarily is a beneficial one, that allows expansion of character but also levels of surprising ambiguity. Plus, we aren’t told what to think about these people, rather it lets us make our minds up over their actions and consequences as they slowly become unsheathed. Who is really being beguiled in the film? Both John and the group of ladies exhibit signs of it, but the grey areas are what makes it so much more compelling to watch. Sofia Coppola has focused on isolation and female loneliness in her filmography successfully, here in The Beguiled, it lends itself excellently to this darker story that displays her command over suspense. While The Beguiled is definitely a psychological drama, a thriller element as the temperature rises, emerges under Coppola’s command. She shows she’s got a dab hand at creating tension; starting in the most subtle of ways before layering it with more prominent menace as John’s stay pulls apart the fabric of the female dominated house but comes around to find him in the process. Some of it can feel a tiny bit too gentle for such a tense story, but this is a minor quibble because the overall subtlety and open to interpretation approach lends The Beguiled an immensely watchable and tightly compact air. The evocative cinematography, based on shadowy bronze and occasional smattering of natural light, heightens the intensely claustrophobic cage that is the school, both for the women and John. A lot of it takes place within the aura of candlelight and closed curtains, further reinforcing the Southern Gothic entrapment of John and the tightly wound wheels of passion that are just fit to burst. There is an element of a very dark fairy tale present in the visuals, with the shafts of light through trees both coming off as beautiful and strange. And look out for the final shot of this movie, trust me it’s one that really speaks volumes and is strikingly executed. A sparse but effective score gathers momentum as darkness creeps into the tale.
Colin Farrell has the dashing good looks but also the talent to play the catalyst of The Beguiled. He is definitely someone who is manipulative and insincere in his promises, but an added depth comes out. Farrell brings with him a vulnerability that ultimately brings about his conniving behaviour, effectively he is brought down by his own plans. While Farrell is impressive in his part, the main focus of The Beguiled is the women. And they deliver brilliant work along the way. Nicole Kidman is both steely and motherly as the headmistress, who is not immune to feelings of passion that are stirred by John’s arrival. Through her watchful yet conflicted eyes, Kidman splendidly discovers a tough will and domineering hold over all who she sees; she is both protector and something of a jailer at the same time. For me, Kirsten Dunst, who has long been one of my favourite actresses, is the standout when starring as the wounded and easily lead Edwina. Her face presents a palpable sadness and a sincere hope of something that will take her away from the life she leads, a hope she thinks John will assist in. But Dunst also manages to inhabit something unpredictable in Edwina once betrayed, that rises with the jealousy of the characters around her. It’s an understated but very memorable performance. Elle Fanning, all pouting lips and come hither glances, nicely plays the teasing seductive student whose interest in John is far from wholesome. Young Oona Laurence makes a mark with a wide-eyed portrayal of children’s innocence, while Angourie Rice also stands out as one of the students growing attracted to the man in the school.
A decidedly Gothic and arresting drama of psychological desire and it’s consequences, The Beguiled finds Sofia Coppola stepping our of her comfort zone a little and fashioning something very haunting. Strikingly composed and executed, plus boasting some fine acting from a largely female cast, The Beguiled is very worthy of the praise it has been receiving.