'We could show him some real Southern hospitality.'
A girl foraging for mushrooms discovers an injured soldier and brings him back to her school. From there spirals out a tale of desire as each member of the school is drawn to this new arrival and what he can offer them. The soldier is more then happy to play the women against each other as he hides from the enemy until proceedings escalate somewhat.
The Beguiled is devilishly good fun, but almost doesn't feel aware of how enjoyable it is. Sumptuously presented, it is one of the more viscerally stunning films of the year, aided by a powerfully effective sound design. But in presenting the drama in such a stately austere manner the film seems to be fighting the more enjoyable elements of itself. When it cuts loose and allows itself to play as a Hitchcockian thriller or as a slice of costume drama erotica, the film becomes wonderfully tense or ludicrously enjoyable. The film is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's novel and so by moving on from the more exploitative elements of the 70s version of the story, it feels like it has been tamed. You almost feel you shouldn't be having such fun while watching the drama unfold.
At the heart of the film is a trio of fabulous turns from actors whose talents are often easy to forget. Colin Farrell as the injured soldier is devilishly charming, initially all twinkling eyes and kind words. Watching him attempt to manipulate each resident is a hoot. Nicole Kidman finds the perfect film for her skilfully mannered style, and has delicious fun with some of the more withering comments gifted to her character. Kirsten Dunst is the best of the three, her face full of sorrow and loss. Her story is fascinating, but is mostly expressed in her throw away comments and stellar performance. The rest of the cast don't get a look in when they are up against these three at the top of their game. It is also worth noting that there is a degree of whitewashing in the film, as the novel's only non-white character has been removed from the film entirely. Call it cutting the story down to the lean minimum, it does need to be highlighted as a perturbing decision in a film where directorial choice is so important to the style and technique on display.
Director Sofia Coppola has had one of the more interesting careers among her contemporaries. Achieving initial success with critic darlings The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, she seemed to have then struggle with handsomely mounted but emotionally-lacking fares such as Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring. Here she seems to recapture some of the sparkle of her early works with her most satisfying film to date. While it is too silly to be a prestige film and too restrained to be pulp, The Beguiled is a very enjoyable film. Aided by her central trio all being on exemplary form, it feels like this intriguing director is back at the top of her game.