Virginal beauty is sin deep in Oscar-winning writer-director Sofia Coppola’s fable of female empowerment, based on the novel by Thomas P Cullinan.
Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, The Beguiled lovingly reupholsters a shabby and oft overlooked Gothic melodrama starring Clint Eastwood with stunning cinematography courtesy of Phillipe Le Sourd and impeccable production design.
The focus of Coppola’s version is an isolated household of women and girls, who unwittingly invite a wolf in military clothing into their hen house, and must take control of their destiny, using force if necessary.
The subsequent battle of wits and womanly wiles unfolds through the eyes of these steely female protagonists, who may not have the imposing physicality to overpower the snarling predator in their midst, but they do have cunning and strength in numbers.
While the turbulent period is evoked with aplomb, some elements of Coppola’s haunting vision falter.
Nicole Kidman’s melodious Southern accent waxes and wanes in scenes with co-star Colin Farrell, who retains his thick Irish accent.
Tension between the characters could also be heightened in the calm before the inevitable emotional storm, although that would fray the fabric of sisterly solidarity, which the script is desperate to preserve until the artfully composed closing frames.
Eleven-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) goes foraging for mushrooms in the woods in war-torn Virginia and stumbles upon an injured Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Farrell).
She helps him to stagger to the nearby girls’ school where teacher Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) oversees the education of the remaining charges with the help of Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).
Reluctantly, Martha allows John to stay and tends to his wounds.
“There’s enough metal in here to shoe a horse,” she observes, removing gun pellets from the soldier’s bloodied leg.
Students Alicia (Elle Fanning), Emily (Emma Howard), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Marie (Addison Riecke) are fascinated with the handsome new arrival, who they agree must be handed over to the Confederates when they next pass by the school.
“You are not a guest here. You are a most unwelcome visitor and we do not propose to entertain you,” Martha sternly reminds the corporal.
However, with each passing day, John charms his wary, affection-starved hosts, gradually pitting them against each other in a competition for his affections.
The Beguiled largely delivers on the intoxicating promise of the title, casting a heady spell as the females of the species unite in adversity.
Kidman tightly coils her teacher’s fury, savouring the script’s gallows humour when Martha prepares to amputate the corporal’s leg and orders her girls to “bring me the anatomy book!”
Coppola’s camera lingers hungrily on Farrell’s naked muscular torso, portraying him as an object of desire by flickering candlelight.
The tables have indeed been turned.