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.
This decision suits John just fine. It also proves to be the end of any kind of order in the school. As he recovers from his injuries, John sets about seducing his hosts, charming the younger girls, and alternately flirting with and making promises he can’t keep to Martha, Edwina, and Alicia. As those flirtations and promises intensify, the situation starts to spiral out of control, leading to consequences the no one could have predicted, John least of all.
Though Coppola’s Beguiled stays close to the story of the 1971 film, and Farrell nicely channels Eastwood’s roguish charm, the two are otherwise a study in how different filmmakers can turn the same story into drastically different films. Where Siegel reveled in the luridness of the material and told the story through John’s eyes with an abundance of early ‘70s stylistic flourishes (including a rich Lalo Schifrin score), Coppola brings a studied, eerie quietness. Her Beguiled is a film of careful compositions and deep shadows. Shot on film with many scenes seemingly illuminated solely by candlelight, it’s at once beautiful and unsettling, as if Coppola wanted to mix the atmosphere of The Shining with the lushness of Barry Lyndon.
But the biggest change is a shift in perspective. Where Siegel’s Beguiled is the story of what happens to John, here it’s less his story than one of what happens when a handsome, seductive, willing man gets dropped in the middle of a place unaccustomed to such creatures. He’s more welcome here than, say, Steve Trevor in Themyscira, but no less suited for the place — and destined for a less kind fate.
His hosts change in his presence. Everyone dresses in nicer clothes and makes sure their hair is in place. The young girls giggle more. Alicia’s rebellious streak becomes more pronounced. Martha lets her availability be known in coded but easy-to-decipher terms. Edwina goes all in, seeing in him a last chance to avoid being left on the shelf in a culture that places little value on old maids. Throughout out it all, Coppola keeps a cool distance even as the situation becomes overheated.
Sometimes the approach, and an accompanying shortage of detail, feels like a dodge. The school’s slaves, we’re told, have fled, removing some of the less comfortable historical elements from a film set in a place designed to perpetuate ideals of Southern gentility created alongside an historical atrocity. It’s not always clear if Coppola is interested in this as a story of a particular war set in a particular time and place — a Southern gothic tale of how the South keeps its secrets to itself and its horrors well hidden — or as a story of the unseen tensions between men and women that could have unfolded in the midst of any war.
In other respects, however, the vagueness and distance works in the film’s favor. The script leaves a lot of blanks for the actors to fill in, and the cast is more than up for it. Fanning’s superb as a girl just figuring out what effect her sexuality has on those around and Kidman’s expressiveness reveals more about her character than dialogue could. But it’s Dunst who gives the standout performance, transforming Edwina from a buttoned-up vision of repression to a woman driven by a volatile mix of desire and desperation.
If Coppola feels any sympathy for her, or any character, she seldom makes it apparent, staying a step removed and watching. She observes as the school becomes the site of a tragedy playing out in slow motion and those inside reap the consequences of inviting in the war, and the men who fight it, within their walls — or just of living in a world when keeping those things away was never really an option.