An evocative Civil War-era drama from Sofia Coppola
The Beguiled is a stylish, rich-textured rendering of a tale that seems rife with lurid potential. Set in the Civil War-era South, it’s a kind of Southern Gothic romance, but with Sofia Coppola’s fine-tuned direction of the visuals as well as the actors, it’s also a frank and evocative meditation on sexuality and isolation in a fertile 19th century environment.
Based on a novel by Frank Cullinan (and previously filmed by Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood topping the cast list), the story’s setting is an isolated school for young women. It’s summertime in 1864, and only five students and two teachers remain in residence. One of the youngest of the former discovers a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in the adjacent woods and guides him to the school for a kind of sanctuary.
The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) and her assistant (Kirsten Dunst) are at first wary of bringing an enemy combatant into their midst, but one of the youngsters invokes the importance of Christian charity and the battered and fearful Cpl. McBurney (Farrell) is promptly brought under the protection of all seven. He desperately needs that protection, and time to heal as well, and he proves sympathetic and appreciative to nearly all seven of his benefactors.
The realities of the Civil War mostly remain at a distance, but they’re never really absent from the margins and background of the story’s subsequent developments. But the main drama here is sparked by the ways that those sympathies and attractions give rise to an erotic crossfire of an increasingly dangerous sort.
On paper at least, that may sound like a setup for standard-issue softcore porn and steamy pulp fiction. And Coppola’s Beguiled does indeed have an actual (and wholly remarkable) moment of bodice ripping, and several moments in which “heavy breathing” becomes a nuanced expression of character. The sequence in which strait-laced Miss Martha (Kidman) washes the wounded corporal’s half-naked body is a particularly striking instance of wordless movie acting and character development.
The corruption of innocence and the hit-and-miss relationship of repression and violence are also among the issues raised through the story’s characters. And Coppola offers views of the film’s settings that ultimately suggest, for example, that the school’s classic Southern mansion is also the prison house of immaculately “proper” young Southern belles.
Kidman seems incandescent with repressed lust. Dunst, in a white dress buttoned to the neck, looks to be bursting with predatory intent. Elle Fanning, as the oldest of the students, affects a sultry Lolita-style swagger, but gets little chance to make something fully dimensional. Farrell has those wounded-looking puppy dog eyes, which seem here to help him evoke a hyperactive but oft-concealed libido.