Sofia Coppola has always taken to moody, subtle stories that explore the human condition. Her latest movie, “The Beguiled” (opening in limited release Friday and nationwide on June 30), certainly has that, but Coppola also throws in suspense resulting in something she’s never really made before: a genre movie.
Granted, this genre movie is highbrow — it’s made by a master filmmaker and features incredible cinematography and performances by some of the best actors working today. But if you only heard the plot of this titillating Southern Gothic tale featuring attractive women and a dashing soldier, you would think this was a steamy melodrama from the 1970s (which it actually was).
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan, the story is set in a Virginia girls’ school during the Civil War that shelters a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell). John instantly has sexual tension with the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman); a teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst); and an older student, Alicia (Elle Fanning). Gradually as John gets more healthy, the flirting increases. But one evening, an incident leads to John being in worse condition than when he originally arrived. And that’s when things get really dark.
Cullinan’s story was originally given a Hollywood adaptation in 1971 with Clint Eastwood in the John McBurney role and Don Siegel directing. Audiences didn’t really want to see Clint in the role of a heartthrob and passed, but it’s currently streaming on HBO Go/Now and you should check it out. It’s a performance by Eastwood he’s never done before or since.
Coppola’s version is more ambiguous than Siegel’s. She teases the audience more about the women’s feelings toward John and also provides a better atmosphere of the horrors going on around them. With the Civil War at full speed, we hear bombs going off constantly beyond the tree lines, and the talk of if the Union or Confederates have the advantage leads to the feeling of helplessness the women have about what they do with John and John’s own motives for wanting to stay.
Farrell as John is perfect casting. He certainly has the looks to pull off the role, but the role also shows the confidence he’s exuding at this point in his career. He’s always been a strong actor, but in the past five years, he’s done some of his best work, and here he’s performing at a high level.
Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning also give stellar performances.
Coppola, who won the best director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, uses a slow-burn approach to build a thrilling chamber piece. It won’t be a movie that works for all, but it shows another side of the filmmaker’s capabilities that is a joy to watch.