Sexuality turns sinister in Sofia Coppola’s bewitching return to a more savage era.
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A girls’ seminary stands isolated in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, where several young women and their teachers remain sheltered from the violence raging on outside. While roaming the fields one day, one of the youngest girls stumbles upon a wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) and helps him back to the school. The proprietor, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), is wary of helping an enemy soldier, but eventually gives in to the girls’ pleas to nurse him back to health. The house is soon in disarray as everyone’s fascination with the soldier turns into obsession, and sexual tension and rivalry swells as both the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and eldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) make known their attraction to him. Pressures boil and erupt, and things soon take a dark and unexpected turn.
Though technically a remake, or a new spin on the same source novel (the original, weirdly enough, was by the Dirty Harry team Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood), the notorious Sofia Coppola’s take on The Beguiled is her freshest and most interesting film in years. It’s without question her most thrilling film, and marks a slight departure from her signature dressy drama style – at least in the film’s second half.
Curiously, it also feels somewhat like a return to the dynamic of her debut feature, The Virgin Suicides. In a similar vein, it lures us into a mystifying group of women and their sexual frustrations and relationships with one another. But we’re never quite given all the pieces of their puzzle, so they remain enticingly mysterious – beguiling, if you will.
It’s a slow burner, but also a wickedly entertaining ride, balancing its flirtations with a welcome helping of humour. The older actors – Farrell, Kidman and Dunst – are on typical good form, particularly Farrell, who’s given great opportunity to exhibit a descent from charming larrikin to unhinged madman.
But it’s the younger actresses who really excel and make an impression here. The always excellent Elle Fanning doesn’t get quite as much screen time to flaunt herself as usual, but she’s mastered the art of the temptress, oozing sexuality like a walking aphrodisiac with her endlessly breathy vocals and seductive looks. Australia’s own Angourie Rice could very well be the next Elle Fanning with her naturally distinctive looks and charisma. The most junior member Oona Laurence runs away with the most laughs, unafraid to voice her thoughts on her innocent fixation with the Corporal.
The inclinations, intentions and morality of these characters becomes extremely hazy, so it’s difficult to know who to root for, if anyone at all. Like Lady Macbeth, the alleged “pro-feminist stance” this has been said by some to take is debatable, given the disturbing nature through which it is triumphed; nonetheless Coppola’s return to fine form is a terrific, beguiling achievement.
The Beguiled is available in Australian cinemas from July 12
Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017