Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” particularly in its early scenes, eerily captures a mood of ominous beauty.
It’s the summer of 1864 in rural Virginia, several years into the Civil War, and the Farnsworth Seminary – a boarding school for young Southern ladies, run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) – is a remote island of women in a countryside torn by battle.
One day, the school’s youngest remaining student (Oona Lawrence) discovers a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) while hunting mushrooms in the woods nearby. Reluctantly, Miss Martha takes him in. “You are not a guest here,” she informs him crisply. “You are a most unwelcome visitor.”
As he slowly recovers, his presence changes the climate of the white-pillared house. The preteen girls are fascinated; the teenagers, particularly Alicia (Elle Fanning), practice their flirtation skills; and the two teachers, imperious Martha and lonely Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), struggle to hide their own fascination.
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They are all, in different ways, beguiled by this unwanted guest; and something in the film’s sultry quiet tells us that this can’t possibly end well.
“The Beguiled,” based on a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously filmed in 1971, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page), won the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
It’s easy to see why: Coppola is a master of atmosphere, and the film flows like cool water from one exquisite scene to the next. You see the heat, as sunbeams spill into dusty interiors; you hear silky voices weaving together, set to a soundtrack of chirping crickets and a silence that seems to vibrate in the heat. (There’s almost no background music in this film, which adds to the eeriness.)
Candles illuminate faces in the dark; a curving staircase looms like a shadow. And the actors pitch their roles perfectly: Kidman’s breathy calm; Farrell’s charm, just hinting at something dark within it; Fanning’s way of prettily arranging herself, showing off Alice’s newfound power; Dunst’s quiet melancholy.
But is mood enough? Like so many of Coppola’s films, beauty is everything; the vision’s so entrancing that the story disappears.
You wonder, watching, about Coppola’s choice to erase a slave character (present in both the book and the previous movie; you sense the absence); about the plausibility of events in the film’s final third; about why these characters are the way they are; about whether anything matters in this movie but that beautiful late-afternoon light.
The dresses flutter, the crickets hum and the cast poses for a final soft tableau, the faces and fabrics seeming to shimmer in the sunlight. For that moment, at least, it was perfect.
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence.
Writer-director: Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Rating: R (some sexuality).