Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is a more satisfying exercise in atmosphere than in storytelling. A remake of an early 70s Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood production, the film sets us three years into the Civil War in Virginia at a nearly abandoned girls school. The inhabitants consist of just five students, head teacher Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and other instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
Their quiet existence is jolted when wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge to recover from his injuries. This is when a series of ulterior motives plays out over an hour and a half. Miss Farnsworth runs her enterprise with an exacting demeanor that the Corporal’s presence alters. Edwina is looking to escape the confines of the Southern mansion’s trappings and sees the Corporal’s presence as that chance. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the feisty student and the Corporal’s presence awakens her desires for further rebellion. As for the Corporal? His motives are an ever-changing guessing game as he charms his way through the lonely home and the people in them.
The Beguiled is ultimately a tale of empowerment told in a melodramatic and brisk manner. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, writer/director Coppola hits the mark creating the claustrophobic setting. There may be a massive war going on around them that’s affecting their lives, but the picture sets its sights solely on the drama in the home. That said, the action happening inside is only somewhat intriguing. That may just be a matter of a rather simple concept that can only go so far in dramatic weight.
The performances are uniformly fine, but it’s Kidman who has the best material to work with in shaping her character. You question where her actions come from and how her back story informs them. Not so much with the rest of the players. Ultimately The Beguiled is a bit of a disappointment that still evokes an often interesting sense of time and place.
**1/2 (out of four)