Rarely would someone, even in this most emotionally flatulent and voraciously self-defining of ages, describe themselves as being ‘beguiled’. It’s an archaic title and The Beguiled is an American Civil War set drama, so it seems right in terms of period.
The verb ‘beguile’, however, has two general definitions. The first is to charm or enchant someone, often in a misleading or deceptive way, and the second is to pass time pleasantly, as in to 'beguile away an hour or two'.
No-one appears to have been having a good time, though, in the isolated all girls’ school in Virginia before injured Irish Yankee soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) is discovered propped up against a tree at the beginning of the film. The girl who finds him promptly brings him back to the school and they all decide it would be the Christian thing to do to nurse him back to health, even if he is an enemy of the South. But the unexpected male presence starts to bring about some rather disturbing changes in the school’s atmosphere.
It isn't entirely clear who we’re meant to think the title applies to in Sofia Coppola’s new adaptation of the Thomas Cullinan novel of the same name. Is it the teachers and students of the school themselves, enamoured with a rare glimpse of rough-and-ready masculinity? Or is it the soldier himself, mesmerised by the absurd fantasy he seems to have inadvertently found himself in?
Don Siegel had previously adapted the same material in 1971 with Clint Eastwood as McBurney, but Coppola’s version is smoky and wistful compared to Siegel’s macho bluntness. This interpretation is female-centric and sees the soldier through the eyes of the school’s residents, rather than vice versa. This is much closer in spirit to the original book, which tells the story from a different girl's point of view in each chapter, although the film doesn’t lend each perspective equal importance, feeling much more comfortable with the older characters’ emotions than the children’s fixations.
The acting is universally excellent, including Coppola regulars Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. Nicole Kidman plays the emotionally-stunted dead-eyed matriarch that she has mastered over the years, while Colin Farrell gets to exercise his eyebrows and play the bland charmer that has earned him his lunch so many times, before delving into his darker (and more believable) side later on.
Beautifully filmed, Coppola only occasionally suffers from a slight lack of ambition. Despite the film earning Coppola Best Director at Cannes this year, there are some directorial missteps here. The scenes sometimes slip by far too quickly, barely beginning before they’ve already ended, while the cloistered emotional tone sometimes becomes dramatically flat rather than repressively heated.
Although not entirely entrancing itself, it is charming (in a misleading way) and is an intellectually stimulating, wonderfully dark film in a barely literate and lacklustre summer schedule.