SFF review: The Beguiled

Sweat and sultry glances run riot in Sofia Coppola’s sexually charged chamber piece. Enormous fun.

From the outset, there’s an enticingly otherworldly menace to the sticky, sun-dappled heat of writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Civil War melodrama The Beguiled. Spanish moss hangs heavy from the stifling canopy of ancient oaks surrounding the once grand, now crumbling gothic mansion turned schoolhouse that’s home to seven Southern belles in the dying days of that catastrophic schism.

With nowhere else to run, they huddle together long after the slaves they held have fled while the thunder of battle echoes just beyond trees and cannon smoke further chokes.

It’s in the eerie midst of this overgrown netherworld that young Amy (Oona Laurence), foraging for mushrooms, discovers Coin Farrell’s deserting soldier of fortune Corporal John McBurney, a Dublin man who sold his services to the Union forces for $300 and now huddles without honour in the shadows while nursing the gunshot-wounded leg that leaves him at her mercy.

Making the fateful decision to bring this “blue belly” back home with her, the women therein react almost entirely a flutter at the sudden arrival of this roguishly handsome enemy of the Confederate states, barring the initially appalled propriety of Angourie Rice’s Jane.

As shot by The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, the out of time enchantment cast over proceedings is aided by the visual language of Peter Weir’s seminal Picnic at Hanging Rock, all pent up passions and pervading doom-laden air that also recalls Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. Fittingly, Kristen Dunst – star of the latter two movies – plays Edwina, a dreamily romantic teacher who’s instantly smitten by John’s arrival. This sets her at once in opposition to Nicole Kidman’s schoolmarm Martha, with the Australian star laying up her icy reputation, all pursed indigence and haughty grandeur. Until, that is, she gives an unconscious and almost naked John a rub down with a damp cloth that almost ventures into the undergrowth, sparking a fire within.

Though the wounded hunk is to be held only until such time as he is sufficiently healed and then handed over to friendly soldiers, in the meantime, the key to his music parlour prison is turned by almost all.

Elle Fanning’s adventurous Alicia, very Miranda-like in floaty cotton dresses, instantaneously casts off the parlous restraint demonstrated by these vying elders, planting a stolen kiss on the sleeping prince’s lips. Even the youngest residents aren’t above swiping Martha’s pearl earrings for a spot of dress up as the finest silks are fished from fusty closets.

Adapted directly from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, Coppola dispenses with the extraneous baggage of Don Siegel’s previous attempt starring Clint Eastwood, cutting a much more lithely charged dash at little over 90 minute. The complex territorial passions of female sexuality are also heightened, eliciting palpable erotic tension as the women vie for a slowly recuperating John’s attentions. Kidman, Fanning and Dunst all excel, with Farrell gamely rising to the challenge of a man playing the game for all it’s worth while seemingly unaware of the natural consequences of betting on all three ladies at once.

Tense psychodrama is laced through with blackly comic laughs used sparingly as morals loosen just like John’s shirt buttons as he is clearly objectified while working up a steamy sweat chopping wood and weeding the garden, attracting furtively stolen glances. As the plot edges closer to its gamely fraught finale, complete with Chekov’s gun, disposable body parts horror and crashing crystal chandelier, Coppola lets loose with smart sexual politics, rampant double entendre and multiple marvellous entries into the cinematic canon of painfully awkward dinner parties. A good deal more direct than Coppola’s wistfully loaded previous movies, The Beguiled is enormously saucy fun. These ladies are not for turning.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords