The Beguiled: A corset drama that's also a bewitching delight

Focus Features

After screening at the New Zealand International Film Festival, The Beguiled is now returning to select Kiwi cinemas.

The Beguiled (M)
​93 mins ★★★★½

Sofia Coppola's latest foray into the past might be far more straight down the line than Marie Antoinette, but it's no less subversive.

​Based on Thomas P Cullinan's 1966 novel (originally published as A Painted Devil) of the same name, The Beguiled is a very different take on the same tale that Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel first brought to the screen in 1971.

For a start, Coppola sets her story in Virginia, rather than Mississippi and offers a far more female-orientated perspective on proceedings.

The Beguiled boasts a strong female cast and slim, but dramatically packed running time.

The Beguiled boasts a strong female cast and slim, but dramatically packed running time.

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It's 1864 and the American Civil War has been raging for three years. But while their lessons are constantly punctuated by cannon and rifle fire, the five students at Miss Farnsworth's Seminary for Young Ladies attempt to continue life as normal. That is until while out foraging for mushrooms, young Amelia (Oona Dabney) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier.

Frightened of capture and unable to walk, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) pleads with Amelia for shelter. Believing that it's "the Christian thing to do"  Amelia agrees, even if she's had terrible tales about "blue bellies" and what they do to Southern Women.

The Beguiled focuses on the inhabitants of a private girls' school.

The Beguiled focuses on the inhabitants of a private girls' school.

His arrival naturally causes consternation amongst the others. But after initial debate, his presence begins having a strange effect on all the seminary's residents. Manners improve, adornments increase and everyone's finest garments are dusted off.

For his own part, McBurney seems happy playing patient, buttering each of his prospective nurses up with a casual charm that seems calculated to melt any ill feelings they could possibly have towards him. However, it's a plan that is wholly reliant on none of them finding out about his multiple declared affections.

With its strong female cast and slim, but dramatically packed running time, Beguiled perhaps has more in common with Coppola's 2000 feature debut The Virgin Suicides than any of her later work.

Perfectly paced and terrifically engrossing, Beguiled draws the viewer in with its shifting sympathies and nuanced characters. That is thanks largely to a fabulous cast that also includes Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice.

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But Coppola (who took home the best director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for her work here) also displays plenty of artistic flourishes, from lingering shots to dappled light and a very atmospheric opening. Then there's the dialogue, full of import and occasionally dripping with provocation. "Edwina, bring me the anatomy book," is a line that still haunts days after viewing.

It all builds towards a terrific finish, with the most tense and potentially disturbing dinner party since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Finally a corset drama that's also a bewitching delight. - James Croot

 - Sunday Star Times


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