When a movie comes along with hype and critical acclaim, you sit up and take notice. The Beguiled comes with that after Sofia Coppola became only the second woman in the 70 year history of the Cannes Film Festival to win Best Director (and the last time was in 1961!). Critics have also been mostly positive with the movie standing at 77% on Rotten Tomatoes. So is all the fuss warranted?
The Beguiled takes place at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia at the height of the Civil War, but far enough removed so that the few girls and instructors who remain can only hear cannon fire in the distance and see the occasional soldiers and prisoners pass by, basically cut off from the rest of the world (and one has to wonder where they manage to keep their pantry so well stocked). One of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence), ventures off the grounds one day to pick mushrooms for dinner and comes upon a wounder Yankee soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). His leg is pretty messed up and he seems like a gentle enough man — not the murderous Northerners these Southern belles have been conditioned to believe in — so Amy helps him back to the boarding school.
There he meets headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the rest of the girls, all of various ages. Martha manages to pick the metal out of McBurney’s leg and get him sewn up, but the question is what do they do with this man who is the enemy? If they turn him over to the passing soldiers, he’ll surely die from the wound. So they decide the good Christian thing to do is let him recover. He eventually gets well enough to help tend to the grounds and make himself useful, but it’s obvious Martha is torn between her needs and her morals, especially during one moment when she gives him a sponge bath while he’s unconscious. But McBurney seems to have fallen for Edwina, and she for him, but there are more temptations in the house than one man can handle, like the younger Alicia (Elle Fanning). And after about three-quarters of a languid story of a man’s recovery, The Beguiled turns into an edge of the seat thriller. But by the time it’s all over, you may be wondering what all the fuss was about.
The Beguiled is actually a remake of a mostly forgotten film by the same name from 1971 that starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, which was based on the book “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan. Coppola convinced Universal to dig the film out of the vault and let her retell the story from the female point of view. Here, McBurney is more of a gentle soul, not even an American, having arrived from Ireland to help fight in the war to make some money. He doesn’t really have a horse in this race which makes him appear to be less of a threat to the residents of the boarding school. To them, he always seems polite and grateful, although young Marie (Addison Riecke) is always suspect about this Yankee in their midst.
The movie is handsomely produced, giving the inside of the boarding school a proper Southern Gothic, run down look. If nothing else, the film certainly looks and feels authentic. It just moves at a very leisurely pace until things take a turn and McBurney experiences that wrath of a woman — or perhaps women — scorned. But the incident that leads to the horror almost comes out of nowhere. Alicia certainly flirted a bit with McBurney, but he always seemed to have eyes for Edwina. And there’s a bit of an ick factor with McBurney and this young teenage girl that perhaps is meant to make the audience root for whatever fate befalls him. For me, it just sort of came out of left field.
The performances, though, are wonderful. Kidman is really a stand-out here as the prim, proper and repressed headmistress who adheres to her Christian beliefs, leading prayers with McBurney and the girls, but never using her faith in an overbearing manner. This man in their midst certainly puts her morality in question and Kidman does an excellent job of not making Martha seem like a religious fanatic. Dunst is also great, making Edwina the stereotypical dowdy schoolmarm who can’t believe her good fortune when this handsome, foreign stranger takes an interest in her, and how she transforms into a more put-together woman as the story progresses. Farrell is also good as well, and he makes it very easy to understand how and why these women and girls fall under his spell. He oozes charm out of every pore. And all of the actresses playing the students are outstanding, none of them ever becoming a typical damsel in distress. Each and every one of them can handle whatever comes at them.
The Beguiled is a movie I really wanted to love because of all the hype. I expected a dark, taut thriller but instead I just kept waiting for something to happen while admiring all the work that went into the set and costume design. Everything about the movie is very competent, but even with a short running time it just flows a little too slowly for me.
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The Beguiled runs 1 hour 33 minutes, and is rated R for some sexuality.