When Sophia Coppola won the prize for Best Director in Cannes this year, (the second woman to ever win this accolade) it was for her adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s short Southern Gothic story set in the American Civil War: The Beguiled.
Coppola is not the first director to find this story beguiling – Don Seigel’s 1971 original, starring oft-collaborator Clint Eastwood, was made right before the iconic Dirty Harry gave them major success.
One of their lesser known films, this version was told in majority from the perspective of a wounded Union soldier. Coppola could see that there was clearly another way to tell this story.
The Beguiled (2017) tells the tale from the other side - from the perspective of the women and girls at an all-female southern school that happen upon the soldier, who are burdened with hiding him and are inevitably drawn to him in their own individual ways.
The character of the soldier, played here by Colin Farrell, could almost be anyone, representing something different to each of the women and girls that he meets. He is mysterious, dangerous, exciting and attractive, whilst also giving very little away - presenting a different performance for each character so that she sees exactly what she wants to see in him.
The school is inhabited by a group of women and girls that are on edge. The Civil War rages around them and they are shut in, waiting it out and determined to continue their studies and lives unhindered.
However, it is clear that the tension and the impact of the fighting has deeply affected them all - from the young girls whose families may or may not be still alive to the Headmistress, Miss Martha, played by Nicole Kidman, who has become not only an educator but a mother, protector and commander, leading her own troops to resist and fight on. Among her charges are Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a young woman desperate for romance and to being swept off her feet, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), hell-bent on a lusty seduction.
With a heady mix of hormones, this melting pot is sure to boil over when the soldier arrives.
With one of Nicole Kidman’s best performances in years, the mix of humour, threat and vulnerability makes for compelling viewing, and this is sure to entertain and grip Sheffielders who are already fans of Coppola as well as those new to her unique take on film making.
This is, in my opinion, her best film since the wonderful Virgin Suicides and there are some serious flashbacks to the 1999 classic during a certain dinner scene.