Combining gothic atmosphere with pulpy Mills & Boone romance, The Beguiled is a bold new turn for the always exciting Sofia Coppola. Adapted from Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel, which was also adapted in 1971 into a version starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled's latest incarnation presents a morally complex and uneasy evocation of the power of lust.
When Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered injured in the woods by young Amy (Oona Lawrence) she assists him in hobbling to her home. He finds himself at a dilapidated school for girls where two matriarchs, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) preside over the few students that remain. Beyond the plantation houses's roman columns and a small copse of trees, the smoke and gunfire of the worsening Civil War are ever-present.
Coppola's last period piece was the uneven Marie Antoinette, with its garish presentation and anachronistic soundtrack. This American Civil War-set drama doesn't indulge in the same way, but keeps a somewhat playful eye on the proceedings, at least for the first two acts. The film's title appears on the screen in flowing, bright pink, cursive script like the cover of any number of romance novels, a reference that may or may not be ironic.
The unwelcome Yankee soldier's entry into the cloistered home sets off a chain reaction. From an early scene in which Kidman's tight-lipped Martha sponges away the dirt on his body, it is clear that even the school's steadfast leader is not unaffected. Sofia Coppola's movies have always been about isolated women, and The Beguiled is no exception. The lust and desire that sweeps through the house, touching even the youngest girls present, is both physical and emotional, and its effects disastrous.
While there is a certain idyllic nature to the proceedings, especially the scenes that find the desperately lonely Edwina sharing knowing looks across the garden with the man who could be her salvation, The Beguiled is heaped with atmosphere. Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography, particularly the shots captured inside the house at night by candlelight, seem caked with dust. Shadows lurk beyond the candlelight, adding to the sense of isolation and dread that lingers throughout the film.
Essentially The Beguiled rests on two perspectives - those of Martha and Edwina. One who wishes to resist change, and the other who wants nothing but to throw herself into it. Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst are both spectacular in these dual lead roles. Each actress has drawn on maternal severity and tenderness to create the character, but deployed in vastly different ways. The push-and-pull between them is electrifying to watch.
Elle Fanning as the eldest Alicia is also brilliant. Agonisingly single-minded, but also acutely aware of how she is perceived by others, Fanning knowingly hovers in a place between awkward and temptress. The rest of the cast of young woman also turn in great performances, particularly Oona Laurence as the sweet and innocent Amy, who seems to only want care and approval from parental figures.
Short, perfectly paced, and with a spine-tinglingly idiosyncratic soundtrack by French band Phoenix, The Beguiled is an absorbing tale. Re-cast by Coppola, in contrast to the novel, the story is not about scheming, malicious, vengeful women, but about the effects of sexual and emotional repression that breeds desperation. A romance film without love, and a thriller without a villain, The Beguiled is an adaptation that Coppola has made her own.
The Beguiled is showing in Australian cinemas now.