Sofia Coppola’s revisionist take on The Beguiled is at turns a romance, a savage fable, a brightly lit noir; and it’s that languid uncertainty—the promise that her story could go in any direction—that sustains the movie’s dreamy suspense.
If you’re going to have a strange man recuperating in your home, you could do a lot worse than Colin Farrell. A Irishman drafted into the Union during the Civil War, wounded from battle, Farrell is taken in by the few remaining women and girls at a Virginia boarding school. He’s the enemy and a most unwelcome guest, as Nicole Kidman’s headmistress Martha reminds us; but the women agree to do the Christian thing and restore him to health. He’s handsome and kind; Farrell, wonderful as always, has that beautiful brogue and irresistible charm. As the women grow more curious about their guest—some may not have spoken to a man in years—he strikes up an intimacy with each of them, in languorous looks and appealing conversation.
The story was filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood as the alluring stranger. Coppola (writing and directing) has said she wanted to understand the story from the women’s perspective, making the man the disruptive, potentially menacing one. Here, Farrell’s motives are unclear throughout—is he sincere, is he dangerous?—and Kidman and the others must band together to protect their house and their survival.
Coppola’s placid, wispy style cools the story’s more melodramatic scenes, favoring the ladies’ unspoken yearnings, jealousies, and expectations over the ripe Gothic plot twists. She seems comfortable working within a more traditional narrative structure without staying rigidly bound to it. The boarding school is a character as much as its inhabitants. Every creek of the house seems sinister, and the many atmospheric shots of the estate, with its sun-pierced greenery and withering vines looming, are beautiful and unsettling with their repetition. And there are a lot of these shots, which suggest Coppola thinks of us as onlookers and spies, too. Or maybe she’s just unduly interested in the scenery.
There’s an unavoidable hint of camp, especially when Kidman’s on the screen. Even at a whisper, Kidman is imperious—a staunchly corseted woman who projects a restless sexuality. Watch how she clenches the doorframe outside Farrell’s room; no one heavy-breathes as sensually as Kidman. Oona Lawrence is a pleasant discovery as Amy, the young girl who finds Farrell in the woods and quickly befriends him. Kirsten Dunst, once the youthful ideal in Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, is cast against type as prim schoolteacher Edwina, who with a few loving words from Farrell starts to let her defenses down. Dunst’s through-line feels hurried, the most in need of expansion, in a movie that holds its cards a little too close at times.
Especially early on, the movie seems to cut off scenes before we are ready, as if it’s afraid to give too much away. There’s a distancing effect in that approach; we watch the women intellectually more than fully identifying with them. This makes more sense by the end, when it turns out The Beguiled means to be a nasty little fable, a grim Grimm-like tale of the Civil War’s discarded, isolated women. Their individual lives are faintly explored, but some of The Beguiled‘s best moments are its furtive glances and suppressed sighs. They have formed their own community that, when threatened, should not be underestimated.