Sofia Coppola’s latest won her the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (she’s the first woman in 50 years to do so, and only the second ever), and there is rather a lot here that’s impressive, but the film comes across as flawed.
Aside from the committed performances to the heavy atmosphere of feverish lust, there’s no escaping the ponderousness and pretension that crept into Coppola’s work after the popular Lost In Translation (as in Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring), and you could be excused, at times, for thinking this is only a step or two away from becoming a wacky sex comedy – or even a Carry On flick.
Based upon the same book (Thomas P. Cullinan’s The Beguiled a.k.a. A Painted Devil) as director Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name (starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page), this isn’t a remake of that film, according to Coppola – and yet it is, really. Set in Virginia in 1864, we open at a girls’ school run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman in a role less complex than Page’s) which has been pretty much abandoned as the Civil War draws near, although we never actually see it. Miss Martha takes care of the five remaining students with help from painfully tense and repressed teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst in her fourth film for Coppola, if you count her uncredited bit as herself in Bling).
When young Amy (Oona Laurence) finds John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union Army Corporal, in the grounds and brings him back to the mansion to help him, Martha immediately insists they report him as a deserter, but Edwina and the girls do the decent thing and agree that he be allowed to recover in secret. This Christian decision soon becomes a rather less than decent thing when the whole seven-strong female cast, regardless of age, start competing for his attention, and it becomes clear that the buttoned-down Edwina and almost-bursting-with-hormones oldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) have considerably more in mind than just wearing their best frocks.
Shot in Louisiana and offering the type of hazy cinematography familiar from other female-coming-of-age tales, from the eerie Picnic At Hanging Rock to the pervy Bilitis, Coppola’s version of the story makes Miss Martha less monstrous (or maybe that’s to do with Kidman’s mannered performance?), writes out the character of the maid/slave and adds plenty of raunchy stuff that Siegel’s original wasn’t allowed to show. Nevertheless, it does keep the central crux of the plot, and there is much strange but satisfying pleasure to be had watching that lady-killing bad-boy Colin get his arse well and truly kicked by a bunch of girls.
Rated M. The Beguiled is in cinemas now