Susan Granger’s review of “The Beguiled” (Focus Features)
Stylish filmmaker Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette,” “Lost in Translation”) has adapted Don Siegel’s lurid 1971 Clint Eastwood western, based on the pulpy 1966 Thomas P. Cullinan novel.
Set in war-ravaged Virginia in 1864, it begins as a badly wounded Union solder, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), collapses near Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where he’s spotted by a youngster, curious Miss Amy (Oona Laurence), who is collecting mushrooms in the moss-draped woods.
Since the onset of the Civil War, the inhabitants of the plantation house have been not been able to leave the premises and have not laid eyes on a man.
“You are a most unwelcome visitor,” declares matriarchal Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman).
Indeed, Cpl. McBurney’s predatory presence immediately ignites a toxic brew of desire and jealousy, particularly between the gullibly romantic teacher, Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the saucy teenager, Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning).
As all the young ladies vie for his attention, Miss Martha observes: “It seems like the soldier being here is having an effect.”
Tackling the vengeful headmistress role originated by Geraldine Page, Kidman slyly embodies the simmering, repressed sexuality of the period, as do the rest of the ensemble. Christian women of the Confederacy were raised in a rigorously puritanical sisterhood, schooled in prim ‘n’ proper artifice, disguising their destiny as decorative ornaments.
Collaborating with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, production designer Anne Ross, and costumer Stacey Battat, writer/director Sofia Coppola tastefully captures the muted, candle-lit Southern Gothic atmospheric style, filming in and around New Orleans.
Interestingly, author Thomas Cullinan conceived the scheming soldier as Irish, so Colin Farrell’s Dublin accent makes him even more exotic, sexy and charming. In this manipulative melodrama, he’s believable as a mercenary who deserted when faced with the horrors of battle.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Beguiled” is a savory, estrogenic 7, a subtle potboiler that empowers the feminist perspective.