The beguiler becomes the beguiled in Sofia Coppola's sumptuous, sensual, smothering Southern Gothic tale set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, in which a wounded Union soldier ignites long-dormant passions in the students and staff of an all-female boarding school. The soldier, Corp. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is an Irish-born mercenary who donned a Yankee uniform to earn three hundred dollars. He has no allegiance to the Union cause so he bolts from battle when it becomes too intense, but he's hampered by a severe leg injury. He's found in some woods by a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), who is initially frightened of him but is quickly won over by McBurney's charm and sophistication. She helps him hobble to nearby Farnsworth Seminary, where she is one of the few remaining students who hasn't fled due to the war. The seminary is run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), a middle-age Southern beauty who rules with a firm fist in a lace glove. The arrival of this "most unwelcome visitor" throws Miss Martha's genteel house into disarray, as the seven sheltered ladies who reside there reluctantly tend to his shrapnel-splintered leg and provide him with refuge.
"I love anything wild and free," McBurney says early on. And wild and free is exactly what most of the repressed ladies at Farnsworth long to be, especially Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Martha's staid right hand, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a bored teen dripping with youthful lust who wants to show the convalescing corporal some "real Southern hospitality." As McBurney starts to heal, sexual tension mounts and desperate rivalries for his affection begin to surface, which, figuratively, set the house ablaze and engulf everyone in its flames, especially McBurney.
The Beguiled, a remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood starrer, is a sight to behold. Every frame is meticulously composed. At times, you just want the film to freeze so you can revel in its elegantly designed and lit scenes that render pictures so stunningly beautiful they wouldn't be out of place hanging on a museum wall. Philippe Le Sourd's ravishing cinematography, which largely employs natural light, should be remembered come Oscar season. As should the picture itself. Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, based on Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel, won the best director prize at Cannes, and it's easy to see why. The Beguiled is an evocative horror story masquerading as a melodrama, and Coppola is in control every step of the way. Her cast is impeccable. Farrell is, yes, beguiling and truly frightening when the tables get turned. Kidman is as steely as ever and her patented icy veneer has never served her better, while Fanning is an alluring hothouse mess. But Dunst is the standout. Her achingly beautiful performance will break your heart.
Although The Beguiled is set during the Civil War, the conflict, oddly, never intrudes on the action. We hear cannons fire in the distance and a couple of Confederate soldiers check on the house but, otherwise, the conflict is entirely off-screen. Even more perplexing is the fact that slavery is altogether absent. (It's explained early on that the seminary's slaves have fled.) But these are minor quibbles. Coppola is more interested in female empowerment and sexual awakening than in race or war, and that's her prerogative. Indeed, the story is so strong and universal it could be set in any time or place and it would work just as well. It's a haunting masterpiece.