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Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell star in the Sofia Coppola-written and -directed The Beguiled.

Ben Rothstein / Focus Features/Globe and Mail Update

3.5 out of 4 stars

The Beguiled
Written by
Sofia Coppola
Directed by
Sofia Coppola
Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell

Sofia Coppola doesn't mind leading her audience onto the wrong side of history.

The Academy Award-winning director first trespassed in Marie Antoinette with the rollicking champagne towers of Versailles and its doomed but clueless Queen. Forgoing the politics of the French Revolution, Coppola instead brought the spectator claustrophobically, spectacularly, close to one of history's most hated women (an iconic Kirsten Dunst).

With her sixth feature film, The Beguiled, for which she won best director at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Coppola has once again chosen to stay close to history's losers. A U.S. Civil War movie set on a plantation in the American South, The Beguiled follows Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the matriarch of a prep school for young ladies, and the Union soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom the girls discover half-dead under Spanish moss.

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The film's Southern ladies – all fans and curls despite their isolation – find themselves cooped up inside learning French while the war rages three years strong beyond their front gate. There's one teacher, Miss Edwina (Dunst, a mainstay in Coppola's filmography since The Virgin Suicides in 1999), who has remained behind to help Miss Martha manage the girls – the most precocious of whom is Alicia.

In Alicia, we see Elle Fanning all grown up. It's been seven years since Somewhere, where she played Steven Dorff's old soul of a daughter, sipping imaginary tea at the bottom of the Chateau Marmont's pool.

Here, Fanning's character is both the beguiler and the beguiled. She is charmed by Corporal McBurney – as all the women and girls there are – and looking to test out her powers of seduction in a day-to-day world that has been devoid of men just as she's started noticing them. A love triangle, an accident and a terrifying solution ensue.

The Beguiled is Coppola's bloodiest, most visceral movie to date, and it is also one of her best. It is twice removed from the original text – there's a 1971 film by Don Siegel and the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan upon which both movies are based. Siegel claimed that the main theme of his film was "the basic desire of women to castrate men," but it's best to leave the interiority of women to a filmmaker such as Coppola, whose career has been built on it.

In The Beguiled, Coppola has distilled the themes she's honed over her past five films: It has the comic tension of high society clashing with the absurdity of reality as in Marie Antoinette, it perfects the cadences and quirks of being in the company of women first explored in The Virgin Suicides and it navigates the thorny terrain of foreignness more deftly than Lost in Translation could.

Coppola often trades in adaptations (The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and the Bling Ring are adaptations of a novel, a biography and a Vanity Fair article, respectively) but never bows to the altar of fidelity.

In this instance, and particularly in Coppola's choice to leave out the character of a slave girl named Hallie, she's been harshly criticized for participating in Hollywood's long history of whitewashing. The charge sticks with a film such as Lost in Translation, which sees Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson flitting around Tokyo, adrift together in the malaise of being foreign and lonely. Cinematically, it is stunning. But none of its visual depth can account for the carelessness with which Coppola plays on the myth of the Orient as primitive and feminized.

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However, with The Beguiled, Coppola is not just attempting something more complex and precise in intention, but she's achieved it, too.

The film is clearly divided into two acts, the second of which is a sinister reprisal of many of the story's initial events. It is in this half that all of the gentility and hospitality of the women – and by extension, of the South – begins to curdle and go rancid. Coppola expunges race from The Beguiled, but she unblinkingly reckons with the spectre of slavery. When Corporal McBurney is left even more beholden to the women in the film's second part, their supposed Christian charity and moral rectitude are laid bare. "We could show him some real Southern hospitality," says Miss Martha, her lip curling in an almost imperceptible snarl.

Far from idealizing the gentility of the American South and its poised women, The Beguiled depicts in microcosm the brutality of the South that was the very cause of the Civil War. This brutishness is cloaked from the film's first moments in a moral righteousness that is later presented to its victim as though it is for his own good. In puzzling over what to do with the Corporal, who has become unwieldy and panicked upon realizing these ladies aren't so hospitable after all, one of the little girls suggests: "We could hang him." Wide-eyed and naive, she articulates the South's most common and barbaric solution to an unwanted person.

Coppola is at her very best when she directs what she knows: the insulated worlds of the rich and miserable. She gives texture and nuance to minds consumed by their own boredom and the suffocating plenty of their privilege. She revels in characters who can sometimes see their own absurdity and just how narrow their worlds are – but those small epiphanies don't make them any more curious about other people. In The Beguiled, Coppola has fine-tuned these skills and offers us something more sinister – a Southern Gothic that lifts the bandage to reveal the rot in the wound.

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