Like the distant thumps of cannon fire that echo in the air around the Virginia plantation where it’s set, The Beguiled exudes an air of impending doom—a slow-burn of trepidation, flirtation, and finally infatuation that will get under your skin and infect you with its sinister vibe.
The latest from director Sofia Coppola stars Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney, a seriously wounded Union soldier in 1864. A mercenary from Dublin, he has deserted the battlefield when he’s discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence) a teen-aged student at the nearby Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) isn’t too keen on taking the corporal in at first, but being the God-fearing woman she is, she can’t deny the man her charity. Amy’s fellow students are another matter, outright upset and/or terrified that not only has a man been allowed into their midst but one who’s wearing the uniform of the wrong army.
It doesn’t take long at all for the sweet-talking and charismatic soldier to begin to grow on the women (and girls), particularly teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). Glares of trepidation soon give way to guarded tolerance before progressing through polite waves to tittering giggles. The game is clearly afoot, but it’s never clear who’s playing whom or who’s winning at any given moment, even as the film reaches its bloody, violent climax.
Coppola, whose work here earned her Best Director honors at Cannes this past May, makes a welcome return to the beautiful, restrained film-making that earned her an Oscar nomination in 2003 for Lost in Translation. Using the most muted color palette since perhaps John Hillcoat’s desolate 2009 adaptation of The Road, she puts the audience at ease even as the story makes us feel anything but. It’s an unsettling contrast that accomplishes her mission perfectly; we’re on edge wondering what will happen next while simultaneously marveling at the poetic and subtly beautiful tableau on the screen in front of us.
Coppola also adapted the screenplay herself, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan, tweaking the source material ever so slightly, making the women the protagonists, not the wounded corporal. It was a brilliant decision, making the film that much more intimate and allowing the women’s jealousy and wiles to take center stage while keeping McBurney largely in the dark.
After a shaky string of films, Kidman has been on a roll lately, including HBO’s Big Little Lies and her Oscar-nominated turn in Lion. She keeps that streak alive with a breathtaking and powerful performance here, joined by the always-solid Dunst. Farrell, likewise, does some of the better work of his career in The Beguiled, as the lone male character (save a few minor one-line roles) in the sea of fierce estrogen.
The Beguiled is a haunting, even frightening film that will burrow into your brain and leave you shaken. It’s also one of the more subtly stunning achievements to hit theaters this year, a true beauty that never lets you stop guessing what lies beneath.