Modest in scale yet rousing in Southern Gothic psychodrama, Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” creates levels of excitement that bigger, longer, louder blockbusters can’t match.
A notably canny filmmaker when dealing with the travails of the privileged in such films as “The Virgin Suicides” and “Lost in Translation,” she creates a harrowing, eerie and unexpectedly witty guilty pleasure in this literal battle of the sexes. With this film Coppola topped the international competition to win the best director prize at Cannes earlier this year. She earned it.
This is the story of a wounded Civil War soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (as magnetic as only Colin Farrell can make him), and the effect of his surprising arrival at the Farnsworth School, a small all-girls boarding academy. McBurney fought for the Union Yankees, and the setting is rural Confederate Virginia. Worse yet, the school’s five female students, headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) and instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) haven’t seen a man up close in a very long time. Yes, he’s a despised “blue-belly,” but still …
The point of the film is how good, Christian ladies of high standards and equally high hormones might deal with the arrival of a diminished, deplorable but still seductive stranger. The reactions drawn by John’s entrance into the women’s cloistered world are genteel, sympathetic, yearning, lurid and sinister, more or less in that order.
The stranger is discovered like an injured animal by young Amy (Oona Laurence) during her search for edible mushrooms in the woods where towering trees line pathways like cathedral ceilings. Though he is an enemy soldier (a mercenary, explaining his rich Irish brogue), he is also polite, gentlemanly, unarmed and interested in fleeing the battlefield. With a sound design as meticulous as its excellent cinematography, we hear distant cannons boom like a far-off storm.
Plucky Amy helps John limp back to the school’s large plantation house for treatment. From the high metal gates at its entrance to the tall front columns that make it resemble a home behind bars, it looks less like a refuge than a sumptuous prison. Confined to bed in an atmosphere of subdued helplessness, he becomes partly a patient, partly an enemy prisoner, partly a welcome caller for the long-isolated group.
While recovering, he receives visits from the entire schoolhouse. Flattering them for favor, yet developing genuine connections with his guardian angel captors, he becomes the group’s platonic kept man. As the evenings pass, dresses become more comely and pearl earrings begin to appear, he becomes something more: the honored guest at carefully served candlelight dinners, baiting the women with sly double-entendres about his preferred types of pie.
“It seems the soldier being here is having an effect,” says Martha. “Maybe the sight of him will remind us there’s something else in the world besides lessons,” says fetching Alicia (Elle Fanning), the only student of bridal age.
As he introduces implied carnal knowledge to the Farnsworth syllabus, there emerges an unspoken competition for his attention. When the stern Martha scrubs the unconscious blue-belly’s firm, manly stomach, legs, arms and more, Kidman’s expression turns from businesslike solemnity to the seductiveness of inner excitement. But it’s Dunst’s lonely, heart-rending Edwina, near that century’s definition of spinster age, who seems to be John’s favorite. Each sees the other as their best, perhaps only bet for the future. His flirtation could be the key to his survival, remaining safe as the weedy school’s groundskeeper while the war rages outside. But temptation and jealousy spread and blossom inside the gates like hothouse blooms, creating hellbent suffering and anguish all their own.
“The Beguiled” is admirable on various levels. Running at a trim 94 minutes, the film wastes not a shot or a line of dialogue, finding time to develop its many secondary characters. The script, co-written by Coppola, gives each player in the eight-member ensemble a solid impact on the ever-darkening story. It is sensuously wonderful to watch, with wax candles fighting to light the big house’s gloomy nighttime interiors, and crocheted lace curtains blindfolding its windows from the sun.
The manner in which Coppola presents her story’s crimes of passion is inspired, from the droll brutality of the acts to the dialogue that highlights them. If “The Beguiled” makes your hair curl by showing an amateur surgeon shout “Bring the anatomy book!” wait until you hear “Bon appetit” as a recommendation at a last supper. Absurdist gallows comedy doesn’t get any better than this.