"...There is the heat of love, the pulsing rush of longing, the lovers whisper, irresistible — magic to make the sanest woman go mad."
Homer really nailed it, didn't he? Sophia Coppola's gorgeously-shot Southern Gothic is an exercise in repression, a study of that most human magic and the havoc it can wreak when it's introduced into the wrong kind of atmosphere. The Beguiled is a lot of things — it's beautiful above all else. It's fantastically acted, languidly paced, and framed with a meticulousness that can only be described as painterly. It's a series of chemical reactions that unfold with escalating consequences, but it ultimately fails to live up to the promise of its masterful direction.
Coppola's skills directorial are on display in their fullest form, here; her camerawork and Philippe Le Sourd's cinematography are almost preternaturally in tune with one another, his muted colors wrapping themselves warmly around Coppola's richly-populated frames. The whole piece is just dripping with atmosphere, and Le Sourd's minimal yet sumptuous lighting invites the eye to explore the hidden nooks and crannies in every frame. The Beguiled is a story of women trapped not only in a location, but held hostage by their own desires, and Coppola shoots her exteriors in a way that makes them feel just as confining as her looming interiors. The Southern landscape is often barely contained within the frame, trees and mist and creeping vines are constantly threatening to swallow the women of Miss Farnsworth's boarding house whole just like their raging superhormones eventually do.
Set in the back half of the American Civil War, The Beguiled simply shows us what happens when wounded Union deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) stumbles upon a girls' school whose students have mostly left and whose remaining few pupils aren't exactly free to roam the war-ravaged countryside. Nicole Kidman's Martha Farnsworth is a commanding, yet agreeable presence, with Elle Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Angourie Rice, and Oona Laurence rounding out the cast. Almost immediately, McBurney's presence starts to throw the girls' lives into a subtle chaos, each woman impacted in her own way, but all uniquely struggling with their unfamiliar sexual desires. An early moment in which Kidman's Miss Farnsworth can barely contain her vapors as she washes Corporal McBurney's unconscious and mostly-unclothed body is an indication of how things will go from here; poor McBurney never quite realizes how dangerous repression has made the game he's playing.
And play he does. The Beguiled is a slow-burner, a mood piece through and through, and it floats about its subjects as McBurney sets to working his charms on each individual member of the house. Coppola builds her tension slow and steady, marinating the entire film in tone, and while the first two acts build to an appropriately escalated conclusion, it still manages to feel a little inert upon arrival. Contrary to the trailer's nearly iconic promise, there's no vengeance to be had here. Sure, McBurney's dalliances play their part in his ultimate fate, but the third act's more dramatic turns are owed to circumstance and logical necessity, as opposed to story-motivated character choices. Kidman's motives are nowhere near as ambiguous as the script seems to want them to be, and the film's conclusion seems to arrive out of nowhere, landing without having much to say about how it's done so or why.
As a tone poem, The Beguiled succeeds. It's a joy to look at, and the acting is absolutely superb. Coppola's direction and Le Sourd's cinematography are well worth the price of admission on their own, even if each element fails to add up to anything more than the sum of all its parts. There's a beautiful picture that's been painted here, but it troublingly doesn't seem to have much to say about its subjects.