What do you get if you place a horny Colin Farrell in a house full of beautiful, single women? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and one that director Sofia Coppola is happy to let play out. As the audience, we’re assigned the role of Big Brother, watching carefully to see who will make the first move and to speculate how that will shift the dynamics of the house.
The catch is that The Beguiled doesn’t take place in a modern-day reality TV show, but in a secluded boarding house during the American Civil War. Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is not only a soldier, but a soldier for the enemy. And the Austen-inspired women that reside in this house live by the law of God under the strict supervision of a maternal Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and a reserved Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, leaves the film light on dialogue and exposition. Instead, she lets her impeccably-cast group of strong female characters figure out how to react to the presence of a handsome and mild-mannered man. The white, mostly-blonde female collective might look homogeneous and somewhat culty from afar, but from up close their individual personalities shine. Coppola gives us enough time with each character for us to admire the different attributes each bring to the school.
What they all share with one another is a secret lust for Corporal McBurney, which they embody in contrasting ways. Coppola-favourite Dunst is made to look as plain as she ever has on screen, but can’t help but take pleasure in the compliments the Corporal gives her. She’s the polar opposite of Elle Fanning’s Alicia, whose girl-next-door seductiveness is an instant hit. Meanwhile, Kidman gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the woman who won’t admit to herself how taken she is with the Corporal (and his large masculine hands). But it’s not just the older women who he develops a connection with; among the younger girls, the Corporal is their first crush, something that thankfully comes across as cute rather than creepy.
Much like Coppola’s critically acclaimed Lost in Translation, The Beguiled’s strength lies in its subtleties, namely the fleeting eye contact between the Corporal and his new female housemates, and the silent sequences in which not much is happening but we’d be foolish to look away. While sexual tension is what gives this film its life and laughter, it’d be remiss to simplify the film in merely those terms. The trailer reveals more than what this reviewer is willing to divulge and is the place to go if you want spoilers. For everyone else, The Beguiled is best enjoyed without knowing too much more than the bare minimum and to delight in this film’s latter acts as it takes an unnerving turn, in classic Coppola style.
The Beguiled is in cinemas from 13th July through Universal Pictures