Of all the films for Sofia Coppola to follow up The Bling Ring with, a remake of a Civil War-set Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s might not seem the most obvious choice. Yet, by paring back the misogyny and explicitness of Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s The Beguiled, Coppola becomes a perfect match for this story of isolated women on the edge, in a grand house driven mad with suspicion and sexual hysteria. She became only the second-ever woman to win Best Director at Cannes with this film, and it’s easy to see why the jury chose it; it’s sumptuous, tense, and completely entertaining.
Colin Farrell takes the Eastwood role of runaway Union soldier Corporal John McBurney, who is found wounded in the woods in Confederate territory by the compassionate 12 year old Amy (Oona Laurence), a student at a remote girls’ school run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). Wounded as he is, McBurney doesn’t seem to pose an immediate threat to the school despite his war allegiance, so he’s taken in as half-prisoner, half-patient, stirring up fear and desire in equal measure. Martha is initially more resistant to his charms, but teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and sullen and rebellious older student Alicia (Elle Fanning) find themselves utterly drawn to him.
McBurney capitalises on this interest, and is smart enough to create a different relationship with every woman and girl, whether it’s as a handsome drinking companion for Martha or a fun older sibling for young Amy. But soon his wit gives way to arrogance and masculine insecurity, and things begin crumbling frighteningly fast. The Beguiled is only 90 minutes long, and it really zips by, but manages to pack in a lot of plot and character, even if it feels some information has been left on the cutting room floor (the ending in particular is very sudden).
Coppola’s script wrings every last drop of innuendo and threat from its lines – McBurney’s offers to ‘tend to Martha’s flower garden’ offset by just how dangerous a sentence ‘we’ll cook a nice supper’ becomes in Kidman’s hands. These double entendres also make the film deliciously funny, with the sexual tension bubbling beneath the surface breaking through in the envious snipes between the women and at an electrifyingly awkward and giggly dinner. As Martha asks all her charges what they think of McBurney, the visible suppression of ‘fuckable’ from Edwina and Alicia as they find less untoward answers is delightful.
There really isn’t a weak link in the cast, though Dunst is given less to do than the other leads, with Kidman giving a great turn as a just the ride side of camp matriarch, and Fanning on fizzing form. Of the younger girls, Oona Laurence stands out with a smart, sensitive display, and Angourie Rice continues her brilliant run of projects after Nice Guys and Spider-Man Homecoming, here playing the only person who remains consistently against McBurney. Farrell, using his native Irish accent, is slippery and opaque, sliding between conniving and sincere, confident and desperate, with something positively vampiric about him when he’s most in control of the situation.
This fits right in with the gothic atmosphere that Coppola creates in the school and its grounds, even playing around with some horror tropes. As the girls head up the stairs to bed in this impressive but dilapidated mansion, there’s a strong sense of the classic haunted house movie, made all the more potent by exceptional lighting. Much of The Beguiled takes place in darkness, with nothing but candles breaking through the dim, and the prayer evenings in the seminary are particularly eerie by this limited fire-light.
Coppola and DOP Philippe Le Sourd capture the sticky closeness of the hot Southern air with perfect muggy detail. It amplifies the maddening, closed-away feverishness of the characters, and at the same time completely immerses the audience in Coppola’s world, a process aided immensely by the complete lack of score in the majority of the film. The only music we hear is that of the girls, whether they’re playing for lessons or to entertain McBurney, until eventually we’re just as trapped in Miss Martha’s school as the unfortunate corporal, no ground given to the intrusions of the outside world.
For all this visual richness, The Beguiled doesn’t quite measure up with thematic depth, but when it’s this much lurid fun, it really doesn’t matter. From the minute that McBurney steps on to the school grounds, it’s obvious that things are going to take countless turns for the worse, and this inevitability builds a unique kind of tension, where you’re both dreading and looking forward to whatever lurks around the next corner.