There are two films here – you might like one of them, and you may struggle to like both.
Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, based on the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, itself adapted by Don Siegel in 1971, features faces fairly the envy of any casting Director. Nicole Kidman is reliably superb as the head of a Civil War beset yet largely contained school for young women in Virginia, with Kirsten Dunst and fast-rising star Elle Fanning depicting a not insignificant proportion of its isolated residents.
Enter John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier whose lengthy convalescence in the supremely gothic halls of what once must have been a resplendent southern vista presents no small sense of intrigue for the pupils, the soldier too soon finding himself engaged with those none too accustomed to such a presence.
What may seem like a dark premise primed for the macabre at least at the outset gives way to visual cues and encounters that are undeniably laugh-inducing, the imagery reminiscent of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock here played not just for its eerie thrill but, mirrored in Farrell’s nonplussed stare at being sung to without warning or directly approached by one of the more forward boarders, the irrevocable underpinning of the extent to which the particular circumstances are morbidly farcical.
At its emotive turning point, heavily foreshadowed in the trailers and promotional material, The Beguiled transforms into a much more jarring thriller, the detached tone of the first half giving way to not unrecognisable ground as the film transitions very suddenly into edgier territory. A momentary pivot, Kidman’s shockingly morbid one-liner “bring me the anatomy book,” straddling The Beguiled’s dramatically divergent stylistic ends, is hands down the best moment in the film.
From this about-face not rendering itself unthrilling nor relinquishing the steady pace of its earlier stages, The Beguiled is identifiably a distinctly different picture, the machinations of which if stretched out to a 90-minute run time, as could be said if applied to aspects of the first half, could be enjoyed all on its own. Thankfully reverting to the frighteningly gothic tone established so well in the beginning towards the end of the feature, either of the film’s two starkly disparate planes could easily buttress two compelling if tonally different pictures.
Engrossing still for the tense uncertainty evident throughout and the unfolding events fairly open to interpretation and debate, the abrupt shift contained in the not overlong run time does only so much justice to two related if distinctly different story arcs that, as manifested here, on their own would make for riveting viewing.
The Beguiled is screening at the Sydney Film Festival