The Beguiled is a sumptuous and terse Southern Gothic that uses the conventions of the rarefied genre to illustrate the brewing tensions between old-fashioned respectability and individualistic desire. The American Civil War period drama chronicles the recovery of a wounded union corporal- John McBurney (Colin Farrell) within the confines of a remote and near lifeless Virginian girls’ school.
The film is written and directed with the gentle elegance of a waltz, effortlessly portraying a commendable portrait of Southern hospitality. At the same time, Sofia Coppola ascetically illustrates the sorrowful nature of this world view in the wake of the Civil War. Muted candlelit sepia-toned night scenes and grey sun-deprived moments powerfully evoke the last dying breaths of a formerly proud and upstanding institute.
Coppola’s screenplay also showcases how this veneer of socially acceptable politeness can be utterly shattered by the possibility of being desired by another human being. McBurney persistently charms and makes earnest declarations of love to Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst). However, these prove to be a smokescreen of falsehood as he desires a far younger woman- Alicia (Elle Fanning)
Dunst particularly impresses in turning this quality of politeness into a tragic portrait of an ageing woman. Through her facial expressions and body language, Dunst makes Morrow seem like a fragile and withering flower that has been worn down by years spent teaching. However, she could be salvaged with the nourishment of attention and Dunst’s subtle flickers of the eyes and smile in the aftermath of these seduction scenes is heartening to watch.
Farrell is equally compelling in a central turn that embodies his appeal as an actor. Walking a fine line between charming and dangerous, Farrell imbues his character with a scintillating wryness that lends the middle-aged corporal with potent ambiguity. Either McBurney could be considered a vulnerable character whose sense of humour is an armour. Or his sharp, sardonic quips reveal the ensnaring charm of a treacherous man.