The Beguiled (Focus Features, R)

The Beguiled is a beautifully realized film.

It’s 1864, and the eventual outcome of the Civil War is obvious. Nonetheless, the few remaining students and teachers of the Farnsworth Seminary, in southeastern Virginia, continue their daily routines as if they were destined to rule over plantations as their mothers and grandmothers did before them. They may be forced to hoe the garden like field hands, but when it comes time to eat dinner, they are immaculately dressed and coiffed and make pleasant conversation like proper young ladies. They study French, practice the violin, and work on their embroidery as if trapped in a time capsule in which the War never happened, no matter how near the cannon fire may come or how many soldiers pass by on the road near their school.

One day, while picking mushrooms in the woods, the youngest girl, Amy (Oona Lawrence), comes across an injured Union soldier. She’s innocent enough that her first instinct is to help this stranger, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), even though he fought for the enemy and might well not be as helpless as he claims to be. She helps McBurney walk to the school, where headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) takes him inside and tends to his wounds. The other women, who have been raised to please men and defer to them, regard the intruder with a mixture of fear, curiosity, and desire.

McBurney is no hero. In fact, he’s a recent Irish immigrant who has no interest in the Union cause (he enlisted solely for the money) and deserted the battlefield when things got rough. He thinks he’s stumbled into a paradise of beautiful women starved for male attention, and pretends to be whatever each woman wants most: a big brother to Amy, a partner to Martha, a handsome admirer to the other teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a potential first lover to the nubile teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning). The title invites you to contemplate who is the beguiler and who is the beguiled, and while McBurney clearly thinks he belongs in the first category, there are hints early in this film that he might be mistaken.

Writer/director Sofia Coppola adapted the screenplay from Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name, and has stated that her film is not a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, although the two share a common literary source. While many of the events in Coppola’s version are the same as in the earlier film, the point of view is entirely different, and her film is best approached on its own terms rather than with reference to any previous work.

The Beguiled is a beautifully realized film, shot by Philippe Le Sourd on 35 mm on the Madewood Plantation in Louisiana, which you may recognize from Beyoncé’s video “Lemonade.” You can practically feel the fog rising from the ground and the sun sifting through the Spanish moss, while the indoor evening scenes are so skillfully lit that it truly seems they are illuminated only by candlelight. Longtime Coppola collaborators Anne Ross (production design) and Stacey Battat (costume design) achieve just the right note of frayed gentility that characterizes the world of these women. Coppola won Best Director for The Beguiled at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and when you see it, you’ll understand why. | Sarah Boslaugh

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