It’s almost as if Sofia Coppola ‘s period piece “The Beguiled” was tailor-made to divide audiences, and I place the blame solely on the studio’s marketing department. Chalk this one up for one of the most intentionally misleading movie trailers of the year. For the odd mainstream moviegoer who is tricked by the preview into buying a ticket, it’s going to be a near guaranteed letdown.
The Southern gothic, atmospheric thriller is Coppola’s take on remaking the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name (which was based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan). The story takes place during the Civil War at a boarding school for girls. A group of students (Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice), their headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) take in Yankee soldier McBurney (Colin Farrell), who is wounded with life-threatening injuries.
The women agree to give him a safe place to recover but with a hunky (and forbidden) male in the house, sexual tensions begin to simmer beneath the surface, sparking unspoken jealous rage among the young women. After McBurney gets back on his feet, the story takes an unexpected “fox in the henhouse” turn with potentially dire consequences.
The idea and story are great, I just wish Coppola hadn’t been so restrained with the material. There is so much more that is begging to be explored here but her film only barely skims the surface. When the big “unexpected surprise twist” occurs, it’s a real letdown and quite frankly, doesn’t even make that much sense. Even the motivations and circumstances leave little impact. Oh what a disturbing and vengeful feminist rivalry tale this could’ve been.
Still, the film is beautifully shot and directed with its hauntingly pretty (if often claustrophobic) setting. Think of this film as refined without enough complexity. The underlying tension isn’t nearly tense enough, and there’s a lack of any sense of desperation. danger, or despair. At least the period costumes are intricately detailed, the acting is proficient across the board (with Farrell being the real standout), and the film’s deliberate pacing serves the story well.
This movie should’ve and could’ve been shocking, seductive and disturbing and while it’s a well rounded film, in the end there just isn’t much to it.