At this point in her career, it’s safe to say that Nicole Kidman is one of this generation’s greatest actresses. She can easily switch from raw and vulnerable (as in HBO’s TV hit Big Little Lies), to damaged yet determined (as she did in The Hours as suicidal author Virginia Woolfe, a role that won her an Oscar) without a trace of struggle. She’s not afraid to capitalize on her oft-charming sex appeal (Moulin Rouge) or get down and dirty if the script demands it (check out her peeing scene in raunchy flick The Paperboy).
Her roles are executed in a calculated and controlled manner—that icy beauty and stone-cold demeanor are tools used to fashion fully realized characters that captivate on the silver screen. And in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a remake of a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood which is based on a novel of the same name, she treads familiar territory, imbuing the atmospheric thriller with a tightly wound sense of dread using her mannerisms, her steely gaze, and—in trademark Sofia Coppola—the unsaid.
She plays Miss Martha, the stern head of a Southern girls’ boarding school, where six young ladies of varying ages reside. Their tranquil routine is disrupted by the arrival of the wounded Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a mysterious soldier whose puppy-dog eyes cut through the thick air of estrogen in the Gothic mansion. As they nurse him back to health, the women start to orbit around John, fawning and flirting and finding unique ways to steal his attention. It’s all a bit comedic, albeit in the darkest of ways, because the film’s pace clues you in on the inevitable tragedy lurking behind those sheepish stares and seemingly harmless smiles. It’s all very effective—in fact, a handful of women in the audience during the premiere couldn’t help but giggle like naïve schoolgirls.
But is the corporal as chivalrous as he seems or is there a hungry monster underneath that genteel façade? Casting Farrell, whose real-world sliminess is only matched by superior talent, only adds to this enigma. And the young women—cloaked in contrastingly dowdy yet lush dresses, tight corsets, their braided locks set perfectly—are just as suspicious.
The oldest of the bunch, Miss Edwina (Coppola favorite Kirsten Dunst), is instantly attracted to John, her openness making her vulnerable to his advances. Then there’s Miss Alicia (Coppola collaborator Elle Fanning), the waif who brashly uses her youth and beauty to manipulate those around her. Both Dunst and Fanning deliver sound performances bolstered by their younger castmates: Oona Lawrence, Angourie Rice, and Addison Riecke, all of whom carve out an identity amidst seasoned performers.
Coppola bathes her movie in a dewy afterglow. The setting is all mossy trees standing high over broken rooves, lavish candelabras lighting up pale cheeks during fancy dinners, and sunrays illuminating vast gardens of wild flowers and untended weeds. And despite this fanciful illusion of space, it’s quite claustrophobic.
There’s hilarity in the competition between the women vying for John's affection, but during the course of the film’s swift one hour and 33 minutes, you’ll soon realize that, like him, they’re trapped. Caged. Prisoners of circumstance and their own feral nature—femininity condensed into a tiny glass jar waiting to break. And when all this unmitigated tension finally hits its flashpoint, Miss Martha and her brood finally succumb to their primal instincts. And up to the very end, it's Kidman's beguiling performance that sets the tone of unease.
This is her show. Her manic matriarch is a solid Coppola debut, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she finds herself in more of the cult director’s projects in the future. Her masterclass and capacity to spar with her castmates is both fun and impressive to experience. When all is said and done, when the masks are removed and the truth is revealed, it’s apparent that she’s the alpha around these parts and they can all learn a thing or two from her.