The opening moments of The Beguiled, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, play like a dream of the vanished South of romantic memory. A mist hangs over a path that stretches almost to the vanishing point, running beneath an arch of drooping trees. Beneath them walks a girl clad all in white, an idealized vision of Southern girlhood (or at least white Southern girlhood). It looks like a scene from the most artful Southern Comfort label ever made. But the soundtrack tells another story. Almost buried beneath the buzz of crickets is the faint booming of cannons. This is an idyll under siege, and one that can’t last forever.
If, that is, it can be called an idyll at all. Adapted from the a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan that was previously brought ot the screen as a Clint Eastwood-starring Don Siegel film in 1971, The Beguiled quickly reveals itself as a film about that fissures that let us see beyond pretty surfaces, and the chaos waiting to erupt beneath even the most genteel environments. It’s set entirely in and around an all-girls boarding school where everyone knows her place. Martha (Nicole Kidman), has the last word at all times. The sole teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), serves as her second-in-command. The younger of their five remaining students (whose ranks include The Nice Guys’ Angourie Rice and Pete’s Dragon’s Oona Laurence) all fall in line behind the spirited, teenaged Alicia (Elle Fanning).
The war has put them in an uncomfortable position, but the school seems functional enough until the disruptive discovery of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier who’s taken refuge on their grounds. Then the order starts to break down. They should, they all recognize, turn him over to Confederate soldiers patrolling the area. But, following the logic that it would be un-Christian to send him to a certain death in his wounded state, they decide to patch him up first. Then they keep neglecting to send him on his way.