Each time writer-director Sofia Coppola steals herself behind the camera, the results are an evocative film-lover's feast, told in a voice singularly and unmistakably her own. 2000's "The Virgin Suicides
." 2003's "Lost in Translation
." 2006's "Marie Antoinette
." 2010's "Somewhere
." 2013's "The Bling Ring
." Most of the best filmmakers do not share such a consistently impressive track record. If "The Beguiled" marks something of a departure from the auteurmost notably, its chamber-piece location and lack of a poppy, deep-cuts soundtrackCoppola's personal stamp remains, each image, look and insinuation unfolding from its mesmeric visuals and performances.
1864, Virginia. Three years into the Civil War.
As headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) continue the studies of five students who have stayed behind at Farnsworth Seminary, injured Yankee soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is brought into the fold seeking medical aid. Martha manages to save his leg and agrees to let him stay while he convalesces, but sternly makes it clear he should be on his way once he recovers. In many ways, however, the damage has been done. Sharing a roof with a mysterious and handsome stranger of the opposite sex rustles up unspoken yearnings and desires among the isolated ladies of the school. For his part, John does nothing to assuage the attention, his manipulative maneuvers ultimately leading toward a series of tragically scrupulous events.
Based upon the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously adapted into a 1971 feature starring Clint Eastwood), "The Beguiled" is a sumptuous affair of hypnotic southern gothic flair. Watching the film, one can almost feel the heat and oppression of its hazy, moss-hanging setting. Philippe Le Sourd's (2008's "Seven Pounds
") lensing in and around Louisiana's historic Madewood Plantation House is exquisite, creating an aura of authenticity which extends to its other ace technical specs: Anne Ross' (2007's "Margot at the Wedding
") detailed production design, Jennifer Dehghan's (2005's "The Squid and the Whale
") lush art direction, Amy Beth Silver's (1997's "Gummo
") meticulous set decoration, and Stacey Battat's (2014's "Still Alice
") ravishing costumes.
The picture's aesthetic spell is matched by its enthrallingly low-key, exceedingly sordid tale of mordant manners, repressed urges, and disintegrating inhibitions. Coppola's filmic sensibilities are awash across each moment; unconcerned by A-to-B narrative steps, she casts her focus on the people in front of her camera, observant of their circumstances, the crucial decisions they make, and their place within a precarious moment in time. Deliberate yet assured pacing immerses the viewer into the lonely ebbs and flows of its female characters, their gated mansion a reclusive island as intermittent signals of the war beyond the property slash through their day-to-day existence. Meanwhile, a battle of moral uncertainty and carnal impulses rages inside.
Nicole Kidman (2016's "Lion
") and Kirsten Dunst (2013's "Upside Down
") lead an unblemished ensemble. Kidman gives Martha Farnsworth, a woman whom John accurately says does not mince words, a wicked glint in her eye. Having lost her husband to the war, she is left alone, struggling to keep her school together, casting a controlled visage on her pupils as the group's situation threatens to unravel. Dunst is quietly devastating as the reticent Edwina Dabney, a teacher who senses a possible way out as her feelings for John escalate. In a screenplay where dialogue is stripped to its bones and every word matters, Dunst manages to essay a vivid three-dimensional woman who wants more from her existence and accordingly begins to work her way out of her introverted shell. Elle Fanning (2016's "The Neon Demon
") is deliciously shrewd as plotting eldest student Alicia, one glance across the room all it takes to suggest she has something other than French lessons on her mind. And, as Corporal John McBurney, Colin Farrell (2016's "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
") delivers a fascinatingly complex turn. Is he a good, albeit self-serving, guy who means no harm, or is he someone to fear? The viewer is left questioning his motives throughout, and this enticing ambiguity gives Farrell a veritable playground on which to perform.
"The Beguiled" is a masterful study in mood and longing, the film's pent-up emotions gurgling beneath the surface as tension mounts. Quietly simmering eroticism and suspense intertwine as the ladies of Farnsworth Seminary are thrust into a tough situation where deceit may be their only respiteor so they presume. In a world seemingly falling apart around them, they have few choices and nowhere easy to turn. It's a tastily provocative quandary in which they find themselves, and Sofia Coppola twists the screws until they are razor-tight. So captivating is the picture, she could have even prolonged said turns; at 94 minutes, this is one movie that might have only been improved with more time dedicated to its bewitching characters. A film to drink in and ponder, "The Beguiled" is artistically alive while delivering in raw, often hair-raising desperation.