The Beguiled (15)
Few sights are more formidable than a Southern schoolmarm in hoop skirt and pin-tucked bodice, with delicate white hands fit to sew a dainty seam. Or a gaping wound. Or a shroud.
Be very afraid: for Nicole Kidman is Miss Martha, a devout black-browed disciplinarian in a young ladies’ seminary in Virginia, where the smoke of Civil War cannons hangs on the air like the Spanish moss in the trees beyond the mansion.
Nicole Kidman is Miss Martha, a black-browed disciplinarian in a young ladies’ seminary
This is Sofia Coppola’s spellbinding revisiting of a book first filmed as a forgettable Clint Eastwood vehicle. She creates a world of pinafores, French grammar and dappled leaves and lets you see it curdle into terror.
The two teachers (Kidman and Kirsten Dunst as Miss Edwina) and four girls are holding out in the first years of the war.
The girls do lessons and dig the vegetable garden (‘The slaves left’) under the protection of Confederate military patrols. While out picking mushrooms, Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) finds an injured Union soldier, a mercenary, and brings him in. The women decide to hide him until his leg heals.
Kirsten Dunst plays a teacher holding out in the southern school during the first years of the Civil War
But he is a handsome Dubliner (Colin Farrell, irresistible) so as he recovers, tensions rise: in an adoring child; in a dangerously flirty teenager (Elle Fanning); in a possessive Miss Martha; and in an infatuated Miss Edwina.
What is so brilliant in Coppola’s careful film is that it creates a sense of pious formality, with prayers and lessons and table manners and reproofs about Miss Edwina’s too-revealing dress (‘Pull up your shawl now,’ says Kidman, and so icy is her tone you find yourself feeling for a bra-strap).
It lulls you into expecting just a delicate, moody social observation. But actually you are in for a sexually charged thriller, with moments of sudden violence and a morally disastrous conclusion. I shook.