Movies set in or around the Civil War era generally involve two things: the war itself or slavery. Given the overarching importance of both of those during that time period, it’s next to impossible to make a film set there without scenes involving either.
The Beguiled, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, pulls off that trick with a story that deals mostly in the complicated nature of human relationships. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a recent Irish immigrant fighting for the Union side, has fled a Virginian battlefield after being shot. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence), a student at a nearby girls school led by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), who agrees to take him in and coax him back to health.
John’s presence soon awakens a variety of feelings in the remaining women and girls at the school, most notably teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) and older student Alicia (Elle Fanning). John attempts to appease each of them in polite and respectful ways, but an indiscretion leads to an unexpected turn of events with dire consequences.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and a remake of a 1971 film that starred Clint Eastwood, the story simmers in more ways than one. Thrusting a man into close proximity with a group of females who aren’t used to being around men, even under normal circumstances, is a situation rife with intrigue. But add in the backdrop of the war and the fact that the women are essentially harboring an enemy, and it ups the ante even more.
Coppola handles the proceedings with aplomb, abiding by the necessities of a period piece but shooting the film in such a way that it feels thoroughly modern. While not necessarily a thriller, the film contains an air of uncertainty through most of its running time, which Coppola uses to her advantage.
She also showcases each of the actors well. Farrell, Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning get the most play, but Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard also get their fair share of interesting moments.
One word of warning, though: If you can, don’t watch the trailer before seeing the movie. The slow burn of the film makes it difficult to market without telling almost the entire story, which the trailer essentially does. So, if you prefer to remain unspoiled, refrain from clicking play on YouTube.
Coppola has used her unique position in the film industry to make movies that are either female-centric or contain fascinating female characters, some successful and some not. The Beguiled is not quite as developed as one might hope, but it’s appealing thanks to its unusual story and top-notch acting.