The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s most sweeping and ambitious picture. It’s almost certainly her most beautiful, and for some, it will stand out as her best. The Beguiled takes us to the Deep South, deep in the Civil War. A once idyllic girls’ school in Virginia remains, surrounded by a haunting lack of bustle and distant, persistent cannon blasts. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) can only claim five students, but she keeps the school open anyway, for those who remain have nowhere left to go. She’s aided in her quest to keep her girls educated and well by Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) — and no one else.
Think back to when you read Gone with the Wind or when you watched Cold Mountain — the Civil War put hard challenges on the women left behind. The struggle for basic survival is present here, but it’s not the focus. The creeping isolation and the corrosive, seductive force of an unwelcome guest are what pull at the seems of this safe haven. When a walk in the woods to pick mushrooms leads one of the girls (Oona Lawrence) across the path of a wounded Union soldier, her good heart triumphs over her fear, and she brings him home with her.
Corporal McBurney (Colin Ferrell) is at once deemed a “most unwelcome guest” by Miss Martha. But the caretaker in her prevails, and so he stays to heal up. The man who is, at first, the object of fear and curiosity becomes an object of lust. He attracts giggles from the younger girls. But from the eldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the women running the show, Corporal McBurney provokes smoldering looks and such shade. Were The Beguiled penned with modern slang and the absence of all the fine trappings, it might have been called The Thirsty, but I doubt it would have the same mesmerizing quality. The sultry sweat and the bodice ripping deliver an atmospheric punch that’s tough to shake, but the social mores and societal taboos that are shattered without comment give the story an entirely new layer of context and satisfaction.
And above all this, there’s the acting. Colin Ferrell does his part, looking every bit the dreamboat of the early 2000s. But it’s the women who sell this film. Elle Fanning once again takes up the mantle of the young femme fatale-adjacent seductress. She wears it well, but it’s an established parlor trick by now. The real fun falls to Kidman and Dunst, who do so much with subtle facial expressions that they scarcely need to talk. But thank heavens they do, because they deliver shade of the highest order, and the result is sure to tickle any fan of a solid period piece burn.
The Beguiled is such an atmospheric piece that it may strike some has dull, or light on action. But for others, the subtlety of the choices made here will only heighten the enjoyment. The quick glances between the mistresses of the house. The barbs exchanged over apple pie. The gaze that lingers a little too long. It all adds up to another beautiful, meditative picture from Sofia Coppola. It won’t win over her skeptics, but it will serve plenty well for her fans.