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The Beguiled (2017)

A wounded soldier

Sofia Coppola’s period melodrama is an adaptation of a 1971 Don Siegel-directed Clint Eastwood-starring film, which in itself was an adaptation of a novel by Thomas Cullinan. Colin Farrell plays John McBurney, an Irishman fighting for the Yankees during the American Civil War, who at the beginning of the story is found lying injured in the woods by a young girl called Amy (Oona Laurence) who is attending a Confederate all-female boarding school in Virginia.

She takes pity on the older man and decides to bring him back to the school. The school’s headmistress Miss Martha is initially distrustful about bringing in an enemy soldier and considers putting out a blue flag so that he will be picked up by Confederate soldiers. However, she feels that it is her Christian duty to tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health before carrying out any further actions.

This charming man

McBurney turns out to be a rather charming man towards the opposite sex and succeeds, to varying degrees, in beguiling everyone residing in the house. Soon, their mistrust of the man melts away and they are reluctant to be done with his company. However, it is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) who is most in love with him - something he clearly reciprocates. Unfortunately, the various competing affections amongst the women don’t necessarily point to a pleasant outcome.

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Emotionally distant remake

Shot in with burnished yellow, heat-hazed atmosphere amid weeping trees and realistically underlit rooms (no electricity in those days, folks), The Beguiled is nothing if not authentic. The traditional Virginia dialect and period slang can take time for the viewer to adjust to - a factor that, combined with the deliberate pacing, static camerawork and Sofia Coppola’s emotional distance from the proceedings, can make for an initially unengaging experience.

However, once the story gets into gear (about a third of the way through) it soon changes from being one of the dullest films of the year into one of its most enjoyable. It tips carefully at the borders of melodrama, thriller and gothic horror, working as all of them without fully committing to any one of them.

A tragedy of sexuality

Elle Fanning in The Beguiled

There are also those trademark Coppola nuances of simmering female sexuality spilling over into tragedy à la The Virgin Suicides. There are even key dinner party scenes filled with subtle frisson in a similar manner to that previous film. It’s erotically charged, suspenseful and even surprisingly funny, mainly courtesy of Nicole Kidman’s retrained delivery - which is as subtly poised as a black widow spider. The emotional distance works a lot better here than it does early on, as the consequences of various actions take on a highly voyeuristic sense of gratification.

It’s also a beautiful movie to look at thanks to Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. It syncs superbly with Coppola’s preoccupations via its painterly use of greenery and muted natural light - chiming with the human nature she gradually uncovers throughout.

Colin Farrell at his finest

The performances of the female cast members are good but work as a unit-style ensemble dealing with the sudden male presence in their lives rather than a series of individual standouts. This is illustrated effectively during a later scene when they are huddled together on a sofa desperately trying to deal with the excruciating fall-out of the situation they have ended up in.

It’s Colin Farrell who gives the showiest performance here, turning from wily charm through sad pathos to disturbingly naked anger and despair as the story’s course progresses. As with In Bruges and The Lobster he reminds us that he is capable of superb acting when given the right material.

If you can accept the slow-as-molasses pace early on, The Beguiled is a truly beguiling piece of artistically-crafted entertainment.

Runtime: 93 mins

Dir: Sofia Coppola

Script: Sofia Coppola, based on a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, and a novel by Thomas Cullinan

Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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