The Beguiled is a steamy Southern Gothic horror

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Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled stars Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in an arch romance that takes a dark turn. Nicholas Barber gives his verdict.

“Seems like the soldier being here is having an effect,” remarks Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) in The Beguiled – and that teasing understatement is typical of the wit which makes Sofia Coppola’s Civil War film such a delicious if not very nourishing morsel. The screenplay is adapted from a novel by Thomas P Cullinan, which became a lurid drama starring Clint Eastwood in 1971, but Coppola has shifted the action from Mississippi to Virginia.

Stepping into the Eastwood role, Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union deserter who collapses with a badly wounded leg in the mossy woods near an all-girls boarding school. One of the pupils (Oona Laurence) spots him while she’s out picking mushrooms, and helps him stagger back to the overgrown plantation mansion which houses The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. The prim headmistress, Martha, doesn’t approve of having an enemy soldier on her property, but tending to the injured man is “the Christian thing to do”, after all. And if he happens to be a tall, dark and handsome injured man, that’s neither here nor there.

It’s a subtle bedroom farce about a fox who can’t quite believe that he’s been invited to stay in a hen house

The corporal soon discovers that the only people for miles around are Martha, who gives him a tremblingly enthusiastic bed bath; her dowdy deputy, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who yearns for romance and adventure; and five girls including the coquettish Alicia (Elle Fanning). John, played by Farrell with his own Irish accent and all of his roguish charm, knows exactly what to say to get each of them hot and bothered, and so, rather than handing him over to a Confederate patrol once his leg has been stitched and bandaged, they decide that he can stick around. They also decide to start wearing their fanciest jewellery and finest gowns – although by today’s standards they could hardly be dressed more modestly. What follows is a subtle bedroom farce about a fox who can’t quite believe that he’s been invited to stay in a hen house.

For the most part, this subtlety works in the film’s favour. When the Young Ladies spy on John as he saws logs and prunes roses in the school’s garden, the scenes verge on the kind of soft-porn handyman fantasy parodied in Desperate Housewives. But Coppola keeps up the ambiguity over who is fantasising about whom. Similarly, when events take a sudden turn from arch comedy to Southern-Gothic horror, it’s never clear how much that has to do with deliberate hostility, and how much it has to do with bad luck.

I won’t say how or why this genre switch occurs, because while The Beguiled is more plot-driven than any of Coppola’s previous work, the plot is still so slight that the trailer gives almost all of it away. With another twist or two, the film would have been close to perfect. As it is, it feels like a wispy anecdote compared to some of the other comedy-horror morality tales which seem to de rigueur at Cannes this year. (One of them, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, also stars Farrell and Kidman.)

In some regards, then, Coppola’s trademark reserve is more frustrating than beguiling. But her care and precision are extraordinary. Cutting the flashbacks that were in the 1971 version, and setting the entire film within the candle-lit school and its misty, sun-dappled grounds, she tells her story in a trim 94 minutes. The performances are expertly restrained, too. With nothing more than glances and half-smiles, Dunst manages to be moving, Fanning manages to sparkle, and Kidman hovers on the line between cordial and sinister as only she can. The Beguiled is a small film, but it’s perfectly formed.

Two final examples of Coppola’s sly wit: early on, Edwina gives her pupils sewing lessons, and Martha drops French phrases into every conversation. No big deal, you might think, but in both cases a macabre joke is being set up – and the punchline is a beauty.

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