The Beguiled (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
In director Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” an adaptation of the 1971 film starring Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood (which was itself an adaptation of a 1966 novel), the central question is “Who is beguiling who?” If you know the answer to that, you know the whole movie. Thankfully, but not surprisingly, Coppola doesn’t make the answer easy to guess.
In her best performance in a leading role in years (her smaller role in “Lion” excluded), Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the headmistress of a small all-girls Virginia boarding school. When one of her students (Oona Laurence, 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon”) finds an injured Union soldier in the woods, they take him in to let him heal. But the seven ladies (including teacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, and the eldest student, played by Elle Fanning) haven’t seen a man in a while, so they’re flustered by the presence of the attractive soldier (Colin Ferrell). And likewise, the soldier hasn’t seen a woman in a while—now he’s sharing a house with three eligible suitors. The soldier is outnumbered by knowledgeable Confederate ladies, but when the girls are pitted against each other, who has the upper-hand becomes much less obvious.
If I say it a hundred times it won’t be enough—Kidman is nearly perfect here. Her character isn’t an easy one to play—like almost all of the other characters, Miss Martha has to find a balance between beguiling and beguiled. One moment she seems in control of the situation, the next she seems taken aback by the soldier’s charms. You can never be sure what Miss Martha is thinking, and that’s all credited to Kidman’s nuanced performance. You can be sure award season voters will remember her performance six months from now. Likewise, Kirsten Dunst holds her cards close as the most likely object of the soldier’s affection (considering their closeness in age). But Elle Fanning doesn’t need the subtlety. Her character is a natural seductress, and Fanning’s piercing glance complicates Kidman, Dunst, and Ferrell’s love triangle. Their performances help craft a wonderfully slow-burning mystery, as unpredictable as any this year (unless you’ve read the book or seen the original movie, of course). The setting—in the context of the war around it, but enjoyably self-contained, small, almost claustrophobic—becomes a character in its own right. You can almost feel the Virginia heat, and the set design and costumes are Oscar-caliber. Period genre pictures sometimes skimp on historical accuracy—in “The Beguiled,” no expenses were spared to make everything look the part. It helps this tale of seduction and violence become one of the best films of the year.