It is a brave move to put an Independent film against the might of the summer blockbuster brigade and the potential rays of sunshine that dampen the crowds of the cinema. But a new Sofia Coppola film will always rear the heads of the critics and her ardent admirers who will help form an audience in the face of adversity. It also helps that her latest, The Beguiled, is coming off the back of rave reviews at Cannes and Coppola’s win as best director, the second female to ever to win the accolade.
Based on the 1966 Thomas P Cullinan novel, The Beguiled begins in 1864, three years into the Civil war, where we are thrust into the heartland of the southern Virginia. A young girl walks between the weeping willows of the forest, a hazy beam of light piercing between the trees whilst the sound of cannon fire is heard in the distance. As she gathers mushrooms in a basket, a figure appears from behind a tree, a wounded Yankee soldier who begs for her aid. She helps him back to the large, white pillared plantation looking ladies’ seminary, a place of refuge and restraint for a group of young girls who seemingly have nowhere else to go and who are under the charge of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Following Ms Farnsworth’s lead who warns the girls to be wary of the soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), they at first treat him with caution and distain, but are all able to demonstrate Christian charity by nursing him back to health before turning him over to the confederate troops.
As McBurney embeds into their hospitality and tends to their flowerbeds, his presence begins to affect the girls and the women of the house, bringing buried emotions to the surface in some and stirring the emergence of sexual awakenings in others. McBurney’s intentions appear to be focused on Farnsworth’s subordinate Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), but as his gaze lingers on the younger Alicia (Elle Fanning) who makes her desires crystal clear to McBurney, he begins to stir dangerous rivalries and set a course of irrevocable consequences.
Coppola’s southern melodrama is a melting pot of sexual repression and tension, where emotions teeter on their repercussive brink. A scene where Kidman’s tightly browed headmistress baths the wounded McBurney simmers with languid desire, which by its end; the audience may well be wiping their own brow. Echoing the themes of her previous film The Virgin Suicides, where a group of girls become imprisoned within a world which becomes their own microcosm, it also evokes shades of Black Narcissus whose remotely stationed nuns begin to question their vows of celibacy upon the arrival of a government worker. Shooting on film and using her trademark dreamy cinematography, the seeping of gauzy light filters into their world of starch upper collars and southern belle decorum. Surprisingly for a director whose work is synonymous with cleverly crafted soundtracks, The Beguiled features minimal music, even the presence of French electro band Phoenix does not pierce the air with contemporary sounds.
The cast embody their characters perfectly, shifting their tones as their burgeoning desires materialise. Kidman is a droll delight as the authority figure whose upturned brow can belie her sly intentions. Farrell veers from wounded sensitivity to a roguish charmer and then to emasculated anger with ease. His hairy, darker complexion contrasting with the milky porcelain skin of the women who he thinks are his heavenly creatures under his spell but soon comes to realise that he is the prey. Dunst is quietly affecting as the prim teacher who wants to escape the seminary, her down turned demeanour temporarily lifted by the promise of a getaway with McBurney whilst Fanning has mischievous fun as the gym slip temptress. Though the best moments of the film are when the ensemble comes together, the interaction used through subtle airs and graces and telling glances speaks volumes of their internal cravings. A candlelight dinner scene in particular, where the girls fawn over McBurney and try to outdo each over an apple pie is a master class in thinly concealed jealousy.
Cullinan’s novel has been filmed before, a 1971 version directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood leaned more towards horror and fed on male paranoia. Coppola has said that she has not remade the film version but adapted the original source material. However it is hard for some not to compare the two, particularly as this time we see things from the female perspective. Coppola brings a stripped back, nuanced air to the proceedings, one that may not create new converts to her world of cinema and which may alienate fans of the Eastwood version. But to those well versed in the Coppola canon, there is much to relish in her seductive southern tale. As Ms Farnsworth tells the girls ‘the enemy is not what we believed’.