Between “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette,” it was already quite clear that Sofia Coppola loves watching Kirsten Dunst struggle to make peace with some kind of purgatory. In “The Beguiled,” the mustiest and most conventionally entertaining film of Coppola’s brilliant career, Dunst is once again cast as a woman with so much to give and nowhere to go, but this is the first of her characters who actually has a legitimate hope of escaping from her limbo.
Alas, peace can be hard to come by in the middle of a war, and freedom even harder. And if Edwina Dabney wants to get herself out of the Confederacy, she might have to let the Union inside first.
Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), “The Beguiled” is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. The year is 1864, the Civil War still rages on despite the outcome growing more certain by the day, and — somewhere amidst the unloved willow trees that surround the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia — seven women of various ages are cooped up in a schoolhouse like chickens waiting to be plucked.
These are the small handful of students and faculty who remain at the Farnsworth Seminary; the rest of the residents have abandoned the gothic mansion like rats from a sinking ship (including the slaves, who surely took advantage of their captors’ dwindling numbers), leaving behind only those who have nowhere else to go. The girls range in age from minors to matrons, but they all have one thing in common: It’s been a very long time since they’ve seen a man, and even longer since once has been close enough to touch.
And then, like the answer to a prayer that these devout belles would never dare offer to their Christian God, a man appears. And not just any man, but Colin Farrell. An Irish immigrant who sold his soul to the Union Army for $300, Corporal John McBurney is in urgent need of some tender care. He’s run away from the battlefield with “enough iron in his leg to shoe a horse,” and he’s on the brink of death by the time he’s discovered by the youngest of the Farnsworth females. She escorts him back to the house, where the air stiffens as soon as the soldier is dragged inside.
Perpetually clenched headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees to care for this uninvited guest, but she’s well aware that he might cause trouble. Trouble from teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning, another Coppola alum), a born rebel in every sense of the word who sweats pure hormones as she stares at the exposed “blue-belly” from across the room. Trouble from Edwina, her teacher, who seems tortured by the same desire that tickles the younger girls. And trouble for Martha herself, who has a little bit too much fun scrubbing her patient down (particularly when her hands wander below his Mason-Dixon Line). John rouses as inevitably as he arouses, but if he thinks that he’s stumbled into a male fantasy, he’ll soon find that this fantasy may not belong to him.
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Shot in Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House (a location recognizable from the “Sorry” portion of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”) and almost entirely confined to the seminary’s withered interiors, Coppola’s film is told with surgical precision and savage grace. The story reveals itself across a tight 93 minutes — a considerably shorter runtime than that of Siegel’s film — packing all manner of ripe details and intimations into each of its frames.
The writer-director trims Cullinan’s book down to its bare essentials, cutting out all of the most heightened elements (like incest) so that she could see these girls more clearly and represent their conflicting perspectives with less clutter to get in the way. The result is a movie that sometimes feels too compressed, like a bonsai tree that’s suffered one too many cuts, and the scale of the story can be uncomfortably dwarfed by the depth of its characters, and the performances that bring them to life.
That’s true for Kidman, the movie star going supernova in her hyper-contained role as a woman who’s torn between lust, envy, and her maternal instincts. And it’s truest of all for Dunst, the most conflicted woman at Farnsworth, who longs for the outside world but is tortured by the messenger it sends her way.
All of these characters deserve more, but they so fluidly serve each other that the film around them doesn’t nearly as reduced as it might. To that point, it would be extremely difficult to single out any one of them as the narrative’s protagonist, but it’s telling that Coppola’s no bullshit approach so vividly reflects Martha’s nature; as she tells John: “I’m as blunt as I want to be.”
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