“Elle Fanning… delights with a performance of scheming flirtatiousness. Given the circumstances, it’s a catalyst for disaster.”
Director Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a simple tale based upon Thomas Cullinan’s novel, set during the American Civil War, deep in the Confederate state of Virginia.
A young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out picking mushrooms in the forest when she stumbles upon a fallen Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). Wounded by a gun shot to his leg, he is fast bleeding to death. The kindhearted Amy helps him to a ladies’ seminary where he can receive treatment and convalesce.
This seminary is also Amy’s home which she shares with four other young girls of varying ages, all of whom are tutored by their live-in teachers, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
Whilst the unremitting sound of gun shots rumbles away somewhere in the distance, Miss Martha and Edwina do their best to ensure that some semblance of civilised normality is maintained at this well-to-do school, priding themselves upon producing well-mannered, well-educated young southern ladies.
Being also a school of deep-rooted Christian values presents Miss Martha with something of a dilemma. Should they now turn the Corporal in to the Confederate forces, or wait at least until he is fully recovered from his injuries?
The decision is made, but given the potentially problematic nature of this predicament, it could very easily be one that they will all live to regret.
McBurney’s wartime allegiances of course contravene the ‘values’ expected of a good Confederate household, but it’s simply his manly presence here that is unquestionably the cause of the competitiveness, jealousy and ultimately betrayal that soon develops between the ladies of the house.
It doesn’t help that McBurney in some ways encourages the situation. Fully aware that he is the only, and therefore Alpha male here, he begins to revel in his increasingly powerful status.
The Beguiled is a slow-burning yet expertly-paced affair, not to mention a fascinatingly taut experience from start to finish. A film of tightly bound layers poised to unravel spectacularly at any moment.
Developing moral and sexual tensions simmer away, guards are gradually lowered, alcohol flows, and it’s only a matter of time before lines are crossed and the pot well and truly boils over.
Farrell is excellent portraying a man mindful to remain sufficiently polite and charming in the face of the welcome steady encroachment of female interest – all the while, wary that he may still be turned in to the authorities at any moment.
Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Miss Martha is one of authoritative decorum, whilst Kirsten Dunst produces a nuanced performance of repressed longing. Elle Fanning (Alicia), on the other hand, delights with a performance of scheming flirtatiousness. Given the circumstances, it’s a catalyst for disaster.
Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is refreshingly conservative in its execution, but no less beautiful for this. An abundance of static shots and an almost ethereal use of light and delicate textures captures wonderfully the very essence of the hot and sticky natural beauty of the southern location.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is darkly humorous on occasion, thoroughly entertaining and ever so seductive – almost beguiling one might say.