With only five feature films to her name, Sofia Coppola has already carved her name as a modern-day auteur director. Whether with quiet understatement (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides) or extravagant absurdity (Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring), her style remains perpetually idiosyncratic with her unique vision. With The Beguiled, she delivers a somewhat combination of styles with a Gothic fairy-tale dripping with simmering tension and deliciously dark undertones that’s nothing short of a masterpiece.
Amidst the literal echoes of the American Civil War, 11-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) innocently sweeps through the woods, picking mushrooms, when she happens upon an injured Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (a magnificent Colin Farrell). Taking pity on the wounded “enemy,” Amy escorts the Corporal back to her nearby residence – the Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. A deserter from the perils of a war he wants no part of, McBurney thinks he’s caught himself a lucky break. Think again, Corporal…
At the school, we meet the austere headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman, continuing her career renaissance), who’s barely keeping the seminary together in the midst of war. There’s the painfully repressed head teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who dutifully takes her five remaining students through daily civility lessons, in a vain attempt to continue some sense of normality. And, of course, there are the five girls themselves, led by lustful teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), who can barely contain her giddy excitement at the sudden arrival of their new guest.
Working quickly to operate on the Corporal’s shrapnel-filled leg, Martha saves him from certain death. But a post-operative sponge bath (which may be the most erotically-intense scene in a film this year) leaves poor Miss Martha in quite the shaken state. It seems the handsome soldier’s presence may be awakening some carnal desires in the headmistress, and, soon enough, more than one of the school’s other female occupants as well.
Deciding it would be the “Christian thing to do,” Martha concludes it best to let their new guest fully recover before handing him over to the Confederate soldiers to face his fate. Unsurprisingly, she gets no arguments from any of her fellow housemates. Amy feels a bonding connection to the Corporal after saving his life. Edwina has rather romantic and wholesome desires for her newfound crush. And skittish Alicia just wants to have some naughty fun.
It’s here where Farrell’s masterful performance truly begins to shine, as the Corporal deftly devises varying tactics to play to the affections of the women to his advantage. With the young girls, he’s positively fatherly, continually patient and calm. With Martha, he’s courteous and subservient, so as to calm her fears and doubts about him. He plays with Edwina’s emotions by promising a future he can never deliver. And he does nothing but inflame the torrid desires and advances of Alicia.
As John heals and begins to settle into his new home more and more, tensions between the women surge, as they find themselves desperately competing for his attention. Realising the power he’s gained, John attempts to take control of the household. But the women of Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies have other ideas, and this already-twisted tale begins to morph into something far more wicked.
Coppola is in fine form here, as she crafts her macabre piece of cinema with ever-mounting suspense and gripping tautness. What begins as playfully mischievous slowly develops into something far more sinister, which is all the more impressive given the film’s tight running time. The director and her genius cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd craft The Beguiled in a consistently dreamlike fashion by utilising natural light and a demure colour palette throughout. There’s something so wonderfully intoxicating about this visual style, particularly in the film’s darker moments. Le Sourd’s continual use of the natural sunlight beaming through the trees in the exterior shots is truly glorious to behold.
The film’s Civil War setting becomes a wonderfully ingenious juxtaposition. As we continually hear the sounds of war in the distance, the schoolhouse becomes a world blindly separated from the horrors outside its gates. The young girls continue to play and giggle in the garden. Edwina continues her lessons in the fine art of French elocution. And Martha crafts lavish candlelit dinners each evening, which become even more extravagant once John takes a seat at the table. But the war outside soon has nothing on the war raging inside the once-peaceful seminary.
The film also succeeds because of its gifted ensemble, with stellar performances dotted throughout. Farrell is astonishingly good as the plotting and deceitful Corporal, and his character journey is a marvelously twisted adventure. Kidman again shows us why she’s at the top of her game, as she engages in an enthralling battle of the minds with John. Fanning delivers the film’s brief but necessary humour, with her outlandish flirtatious ways. But it’s Dunst that captures the film’s heart, with her achingly restrained performance as Edwina.
The Beguiled is a gorgeously filmed and tightly crafted piece of cinema that captures you from its opening moments and never lets go. Taking up deep into just what can happen when agonising repression is shattered and challenged by the emergence of a handsome and mysterious stranger, it’s a gripping masterpiece that ultimately spirals into something both stunningly beautiful and uncomfortably disturbing.