Adaptation Drama

'The Beguiled' Film Review: Spellbinding performances more than make up for a lack of plot

June 29, 2017Ben MK

Writer/director Sofia Coppola's latest begins with a haunting image. In the foreground, a young girl, and in the background, an expansive forest, its most distant trees shrouded in fog. The scene, set three months into the American Civil War, is eerily quiet, save for the faint echoes of intermittent cannon fire. As the main titles appear on-screen in a large pink font, the implication is both mysterious and alluring — a foreshadowing of things to come.

The story that is The Beguiled began life over half a century ago, as a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan, before first being brought to the big screen in the 1971 movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel. Suffice to say, Coppola's contemporary, yet retro, take on the historically-rooted tale — that of a wounded Civil War soldier who's taken in by the residents of an all-girls seminary, only to find more than he bargained for — plays very much to her strengths as a filmmaker, and is unlike any of the versions that have come before.

The exact time and place is 1864 Virginia, with Colin Farrell taking over Eastwood's role. Using his native accent, Farrell plays an Irish immigrant named John McBurney, an injured Union corporal who has clearly deserted his regiment, and who is found wincing under a tree by a young girl out picking mushrooms. The terrified girl, a student at nearby Farnsworth Seminary by the name of Amy (Oona Laurence), manages to muster enough courage to invite John to take refuge at her school, which has all but been abandoned, in light of the wartime situation.

John's unexpected arrival at the gated, mansion-like institution is met with understandable trepidation by its remaining inhabitants — headmaster Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and four other students, including the sexually inquisitive Alicia (Elle Fanning) — as they debate whether he — being a "blue belly" — is to be trusted. Yet, at the same time, they can't help but be fascinated by the sudden presence of this handsome stranger, and soon their wariness gives way to an atmosphere of forbidden flirtation.

Coppola jettisons several aspects of the source material, trimming the narrative focus down to John, Martha and Edwina, the three of whom form the bare-bones story's love triangle. Add to that the fact that the movie's trailer has already divulged all the twists, and, consequently, the experience of watching The Beguiled becomes less about the plot and more about the actors' performances. Fortunately, the latter will keep audiences spellbound, as Farrell, Kidman, Dunst and Fanning cook up a powder keg of tension that more than makes up for the lack of surprise.

Otherwise, viewers don't get the opportunity to learn too much about these characters or their backstories. Are some of them truly malicious? Or is their behavior simply a result of the situation they find themselves in? With a tone that is at once ominous, seductive and sightly off-kilter, The Beguiled invites filmgoers to contemplate these questions, while unspooling a lurid tale of lust and deception that proves quite beguiling indeed.

The Beguiled releases June 30th, 2017 from Universal Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for some sexuality. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 33 Mins.

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