The most surprising thing about Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is that it’s so straightforward. It tells a simple story of a repressed group of girls and women in Virginia during the Civil War. These ladies live in a war-abandoned boarding school on the fringes of society. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs the household and doesn’t take any nonsense. To be sure, this is a feminist film and one that crackles with a dark sense of humour.
Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, an Irish corporal in the Union Army. McBurney has a wounded leg he picked up during battle and has crash-landed in the woods. One of the students, Amy (Oona Laurence), finds the injured corporal and takes him back to the school, into the care of Miss Farnsworth. Amy acts as the surrogate audience in the early scenes, enabling us to become invested in the story. The film later switches to more of an assemble approach where each character gets their moment to shine.
McBurney has quite the effect on the residents at Miss Farnsworth’s school, and sexual tensions take over the house. The girls and women all compete for his attention, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who falls head over heels for corporal McBurney. Taking the opportunity to the pull strings around the house, the corporal starts playing the girls against one another. And then … well, I’ll just say things turn a little nasty.
A loose remake of the 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled has a rich atmosphere and a pulpy style. Coppola has employed a great cast here, too. Farrell is excellent as the seducing soldier who pushes his luck too far, and Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning make a fantastic trio. The Beguiled really is all about the women and by having McBurney, initially, locked in a room is a statement of female empowerment. Coppola emphasises the female perspective towards the invader, so it’s the male character who is objectified here.
Coppola is mostly interested in how the women change at the newcomer’s arrival, and the moral grounds they uphold. The film moves at snail’s pace for about an hour or so, until everything goes bat sh*t crazy, pretty much out of nowhere.
The Beguiled races towards the finish line and it’s at this point where the film begins to break down. All those double meanings, gestures and small acts Coppola brilliantly teased in the earlier parts are gone in the film’s final stretch. What had been ambiguous and alluring, becomes quite erratic. It develops the kind of full-throated bonkersness you see in really bad thriller movies.
The best part of watching The Beguiled is trying to figure out everyone’s motives and what they’re hiding. Even when we can see what’s going on, the brilliance of the film is the intrigue that comes from watching a web being spun around the household. I couldn’t help but feel disappointed when all of that came to an end.
So, yeah, the final third goes a bit mental, but on the whole, I would recommend The Beguiled. It’s a smashing film, which is effectively split in two: the charming, mysterious first half and the bloody, cut-throat second act. You can decide for yourself whether this works or not. But if you’re a fan of Coppola’s previous films, you’ll find yourself right at home.
Written and Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 94 minutes.