The Beguiled is about a tight-knit family unit disrupted by an intruder into their midst whose threat is considered twofold: For one, it is a man, and the family unit in question belongs to a girls' school wherein there are no men. The male persuasion barely factors into director Sofia Coppola's screenplay (based on both Thomas Cullinan's novel and the screenplay for Don Siegel's 1971 adaptation) beyond that intruder. The school represents a society in microcosm: They are Christian (seemingly Catholic), have a strong physical work ethic (which has nevertheless, the man observes, left the garden a shambles), and are deeply embroiled in daily studies of everything under the sun (including, probably, the sun itself).
For two, the man is a corporal with the Union forces in the third year of the United States Civil War, and the girls' school is located within the Confederacy, although we gather from the distant sounds of cannon-fire that the school perhaps resides near the middleground of the fighting. That fighting is from where the man, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), escaped with his life hanging in the balance, a gruesome leg wound of impacted shrapnel oozing blood. That's the state in which young Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the girls at the school, finds him on her hunt for mushrooms and other vegetation. She immediately becomes, as is her natural impulse toward goodness (Amy is really the purest character here, arguably to a fault), the Good Samaritan in this situation, aiding his walk back to the mansion that houses the school.
Upon his arrival, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the school's headmistress, makes it abundantly clear what kind of disruption this is. It's the irrational fear of "the other" at play in the house when John enters the equation: Miss Martha coldly and bluntly states that he is unwelcome, even as she cleans and bandages his wounds. Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the head (and only) teacher, is attracted (to herself, inexplicably) to this Irish-accented man who represents for her only disruption. Young Amy considers him a friend, while Alicia (Elle Fanning), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard) form a hive-mind of flirtatious "Southern hospitality" that thinly veils disdain. This is the kind of film that rests on the talent and power of its ensemble.
Coppola has conceived of a strong one here. Kidman displays an innate ability to switch the character's sense of compassion on and off, so that it seems like that compassion is entirely selective. Equally strong is Dunst, who conveys the character's entrapment within and desire to escape this closeted world with a compelling stillness that is disarming. Farrell plays John as a genuinely good man, appreciative of the hospitality, and the younger actresses (particularly Laurence and Fanning) acquit themselves well with tricky material. The production elements are also predictably stunning (This is a film directed by Sofia Coppola, after all), with Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography consistently reminding of a Rococo-era painting and the art direction displaying a stunning attention to detail.
It's fitting that what is housed within the precisely coiffed production of The Beguiled is so deliciously entertaining. Sexual tension, involving the gender dynamics and politics of the disruption of John's intrusion, erupts in a climax that takes one twist after another, and if some of the specifics are slightly icky and the final shot (a faded longshot of the group of women both young and adult) perhaps doesn't quite clench whatever feeling it is attempting to elicit, it is of little matter in the long run. Coppola is onto something quietly sinister within the specifics of this dynamic that more than makes up for a disappointing denouement. This is chamber-piece melodrama at its knottiest and nerviest, and Coppola has a confident grip on it.
Colin Farrell (John), Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia), Oona Laurence (Amy), Angourie Rice (Jane), Addison Riecke (Marie), Emma Howard (Emily).
Directed by and written by Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the 1971 screenplay by Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice.
Rated R (sexuality).
Released in select cities on June 23, 2017.