What happens when a group of horny, restless people are cut off from the world and stuck in a confined space with little to do? As Sofia Coppola’s delicate and explosive “The Beguiled” shows us, they lose their minds.
Based on the book by Thomas Cullian, (and a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood) “The Beguiled” is a tight, wildly entertaining psychological thriller about repressed desires and primal urges exploding out into the open in tense and often violent ways. It’s mild mannered and chaste, yet scenes drip with sexual tension and crackle with devious energy. The film is playful, with its sexual innuendos and Freudian undertones, and appropriately restrained—operating with subtlety and nuance. Writer/director Coppola brings precision and intelligence to what could easily be an overly trashy and toothless erotic thriller.
The film is set in Virginia during the last years of the Civil War. At a girl’s school, two women and five girls live an isolated, austere existence. The resilient schoolmarm, Miss Martha (Nichol Kidman) keeps the girls busy with schoolwork, religion and farm labor. Her second in command is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the girls consist of: Amy, (Oona Lawrence) Alicia, (Elle Fanning) Jane, (Angourie Rice) Marie, (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard). “The Beguiled” assembles a superb cast that all give layered, understated performances. Kidman, in particular, shows that she’s one of the best actors working today.
The situation changes when Amy brings a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) through the school’s front gates, disrupting the routine. At first, McBurney is greeted with fear and mistrust but as he spends more time at the school, the women begin to view him as desirable. He has a calm, down to earth demeanor-- sensitive and quietly smooth. First, Edwina and Alicia develop feelings for him and take turns flirting with him in secret. Soon, everyone is enamored by McBurney, which leads to a wonderfully ridiculous dinnertime scene in which they all vie for his attention and affections, without directly coming onto him. McBurney happily obliges. He knows full well the kind of effect he has in this all female setting and slyly plays the women against one another.
However, said playfulness gets out of hand and gradually morphs into to conflict, taking the film down a tensely feverish path. The characters in “The Beguiled” let their silly romantic feelings and urges turn to jealousy, bitterness and even vengeance--bringing out the worst in one another and losing a part of their humanity in the process. When his charming ways eventually backfire on him, McBurney reveals an antagonistic side of his personality that takes us by surprise. Even the stern, deeply religious Miss Martha shows an ugly, spiteful side to her that we didn’t know was there. Coppola’s screenplay avoids clear-cut good guys and bad guys; her characters are at once sympathetic and recklessly petty, their emotions sometimes leading them to exhibit borderline psychopathic behavior.
Additional conflicts and suppressed desires (Edith being unhappy at the school and wanting to leave) make their presence known, causing further internal disarray. Miss Martha tries to shield her girls from the senseless realities of the war but ugly, senseless conflicts burrow their way in anyway. Coppola directs the picture with such a sure hand, moving the action along at a slow but thrilling pace, like she’s gently stretching a rubber band out, giddily waiting for the right time to let it snap. Coppola’s film is a worthy companion piece to the superb Siegel version and a wickedly thrilling picture on its own.