Since her feature debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), Sofia Coppola has ranked among the finest distillers of mood (especially languor) and milieu. Those qualities abound in The Beguiled, her sixth film, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's Civil War–set novel of the same name. This Beguiled is restrained, composed, clement. This is not always a compliment.
Its action confined primarily to a Greek-revival mansion that houses a girls' school in the deep South -- where repressed desire hangs heavy in the air -- The Beguiled opens with one of the few scenes to take place outdoors. Pigtailed pee-wee naturalist Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the institution's charges, encounters the unexpected while picking mushrooms: a wounded Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), bleeding under an oak tree that drips with Spanish moss. She leads the enemy combatant back to her academy, presided over by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), a hard-praying Christian who reluctantly agrees to take in the blue-belly.
After stitching up McBurney's suppurating wound, Miss Martha installs him in the music room, where he soon becomes the object of fascination for all seven of the school's residents. The headmistress continues to minister to her newest resident, her wet sponge shown in close-up as she inches it closer to his groin. The recuperating soldier's other frequent visitors include the dispirited instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the eldest of the pupils and the most carnally curious and assured.
Coppola and her cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, forgo ornate, unhinged visuals for simpler beauty: shafts of sunlight, candles illuminating a celebratory feast. Still, McBurney may suffer grievous bodily harm, but Coppola's movie never breaks the skin.