Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola offers up a ripe Gothic drama filled with full-blooded performances from a cast including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Elle Fanning
The Beguiled, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, modern cinema’s queen of heady atmosphere, is a sumptuous slice of Southern Gothic melodrama. Coppola skilfully inverts the gender politics of Don Siegel’s 1971 original, crafting a tale of women in wartime who most certainly don’t need a man about the house.
The sun radiates through the canopy of an idyllic Virginia wood at the tail end of the American Civil War. A young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is collecting mushrooms for supper. Innocence billows around her, like Little Red Riding Hood skipping through the glade. But not for long. She stumbles across a wounded Yankee deserter, John (Colin Farrell). Initially suspicious, Amy decides to take the soldier to her remote boarding school, run by genteel Southern belle Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).
The young ladies spend their days in their collonaded home learning to embroider and conjugating their French verbs; the sound of cannon fire can be heard thundering in the distance. There is a touch of the otherworldly to Coppola’s latest feature. It’s grounded in the historical past, but with the touch of the mythical – a Garden of Eden before the snake and sin.
The arrival of John, with his Irish lilt and charming chatter, has the all-female school’s seven students of varying ages in a flutter. Miss Farnsworth’s fellow teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), finds herself wanting to show John some real Southern hospitality, and is more than smitten by his sugary words. Then there is the coquettish Alicia (Elle Fanning once again giving a remarkable performance), who takes every opportunity to be alone with John. Under the gaze of Miss Farnsworth, however, the girls are kept in check, and the first half of the movie is an exercise in restraint, hinting at the drama to come.
Farrell gives a strong performance as John. He may have charm, but he’s clearly a cad and a coward. Rather than return to war, John plans to hide out as the school’s gardener, and he spends his recuperation time there trying to win the hearts of each of the eligible ladies in the hope that they let him stay. John unfortunately forgets the old adage about a woman scorned, let alone several of them.
Once the women get a whiff of their houseguest’s true nature, the movie shifts gear into high Southern Gothic melodrama, and it is glorious to behold, laced with a playful sense of dark humour.
Kidman is on top form, echoing qualities of her performance in The Paperboy, also set in the sultry, steamy South. She holds back when necessary, only to deliver hilarious lines like “Bring me the anatomy book!” as she leans over John’s unconscious body after a fall down the stairs.
There are some standout scenes (an apple pie dinner party is priceless), and it is gorgeously shot by Philippe Le Sourd. Coppola, famed for her lively soundtracks, makes the sharp choice to dispense with a score, allowing for the background noise of crickets chirping in the undergrowth to create a wonderful sense of hazy claustrophobia. The only criticism is that it all feels too rushed, with some finer details of plotting missing; with another half hour, The Beguiled could have been truly special.