Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell star in Sofia Coppola’s dark, simmering melodrama, which pulses with sexual tension
Sofia Coppola recently called her seventh film a “male fantasy turned nightmare”. Adapted from a Thomas P. Cullinan novel written 51 years ago, it exudes a delicious, initially imperceptible darkness, and with it Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Our polite melodrama is set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the American Civil War. With all the local men out fighting for the South, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is presiding over a prim girls’ seminary containing just five students (among them Elle Fanning’s coquettish Alicia) with the help of their meek teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). When young Amy (a terrific Oona Laurence) comes across a wounded enemy mercenary (Colin Farrell), she brings him back to be cared for, unknowingly carrying a live bomb of gender politics into her carers’ orderly lives.
The fuse is long, and with it Coppola crafts a slow-burning tension that matches its heady Virginia setting. But contrasting with the constant chirping of cicadas and booming of distant cannon fire, the silent war inside the seminary is stifled by oppressive social mores. Surrounded by women, Farrell’s randy Corporal McBurney revels in his luck, cheerily offering his services as gardener and more. The women surrounding him refuse to acknowledge they’re competing for his affections: they sing to him; they bake him apple pie; they pray for his recovery. It’s impossible to say exactly who ‘the beguiled’ is at any one time.
As their competition reaches a head, Coppola expertly shifts the dynamic with a moment of pure horror, reshaping the small community’s former allegiances and leading to an inevitably fraught conclusion. It’s here that the ensemble’s skill truly shines, in a string of scenes that would translate powerfully to the theatre but which work beautifully in Coppola’s artful frames. Later, when order is restored in the chilling final scenes, it’s like watching ripples on a lake subside: almost all trace of malevolent cause and effect gone.
Release Date: June 23, 2017