The Beguiled is a deliciously fun Southern Gothic from Sofia Coppola, writer and director of films that have long since their release become cult-favourites; think Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring. In her newest cinematic venture, Sofia goes in for the kill, literally. It’s a saucy, sometimes unsettling revision of Don Siegel’s 1971 Civil War drama, also adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil. In this iteration, The Beguiled takes form through the female perspective, made complete with Coppola’s signature brand of cinema and sublime aesthetic – itself a marvel to look at.
Beautifully filmed on 35mm and rich in its production, the work by cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) is particularly grand – and chilling when it needs to be. A score composed by French alt-rock band Phoenix also blends seamlessly into Coppola’s vision of a sultry and haunting Southern tale. It’s a 93-minute melting pot of melodrama, wicked humour, and slow-burning suspense that intends to catch you completely off-guard, and some moments are indeed gasp-inducing.
It’s a rather simple story that takes place in 1864 rural Virginia at a seminary for young ladies, run by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with the aid of a single teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). During the ongoing war, it’s clear that boredom and a taste for the outside world lingers within the girls, who have become accustomed to a routine designed to help them in becoming ‘proper.’
Things take a drastic turn when one of the youngest of the group, Miss Amy (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms) finds a wounded Yankee soldier in the woods, introduced as Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Being “the Christian thing to do,” Ms Martha agrees to help nurse the corporal back to health, and then set him off on his way. As a handsome, alluring male – the likes of which Ms. Martha’s girls have never encountered – naturally they are taken aback with fascination. The corporal soon begins to realise his effect in the house, as obvious flirtation and desire enter the picture, mostly through an entertaining, boy-crazy Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning). But these ladies are not to be underestimated.
There’s a notable performance by Dunst here, who shines in a reserved, headstrong, yet elusive role, providing some of the film’s most surprising moments. Coppola enthusiasts will surely appreciate the current dynamic between the director and Dunst, who have collaborated on multiple films together prior.
As tension builds, and a few questionable agendas turn all consuming, the film ultimately results in a very macabre plot twist. It’s a turn that is cleverly executed in a style that Coppola hasn’t quite explored in the past, and the change is welcomed. There is, of course, a certain novelty with the Academy Award-winning director delving into an atmospheric thriller like The Beguiled, a shift from her previous, subtler works.
Overall, The Beguiled is a testament to Coppola’s impactful filmmaking legacy, and as her return to cinema after four years, feels more than worth the wait. Twisted, elegant, and stylish, The Beguiled will no doubt satisfy Coppola fans and casual filmgoers alike. Bon appétit!
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10