This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

Director: Sofia Coppola

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Natural, Untamed Sexuality

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)

Comparing films unfavorably to sitcoms is a useful technique in the critic’s arsenal. It is typically applied to movies set in the present day that features characters just hanging out, with few, if any, aspirations beyond that. It is rarely, if ever, applied to films that take place 100 or more years ago. Part of that is because television did not exist then, so the comparison would not make much sense. But it is also perhaps because if a period piece were to achieve a sitcom-esque vibe, it would actually be praiseworthy instead of ill-advised. Weirdly enough, this is how I found myself thinking while watching Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which achieves that sitcom vibe in its quieter moments, which are plenty.

It is not just the characters who are beguiled, but also the audience, as the premise is not one obviously ripe for humor, at least not of the good-natured variety. Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (previously adapted into a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood), The Beguiled tracks the volatility of human behavior in a small corner of a world that has fallen out of its natural order. Set during the Civil War, the film finds injured Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) discovered by the residents of a Southern girls’ boarding school. They debate whether to give him up to passing Confederate soldiers or provide him shelter out of the kindness of their hearts. They choose to let him stay, though it is never fully clear why. The firm, but ultimately vague stance from headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) sets the tone for the tension that permeates the rest of the film.

The sitcom vibes shine strongest in the middle stretch when the ladies and McBurney have brokered a peace, forming the premise for a show that would be titled something like The Southern Belles and the Yankee Soldier or Everybody Lusts Burnie. But like so many sitcoms, there is a layer of psychopathy or some other propensity for violence lurking just beneath the charm and just rearing to burst out. On TV, it usually never comes to that, at least not to the point of no return. But The Beguiled is all about exploring the scariest implications of a national house divided against itself crossed with burgeoning and repressed sexuality. It is as combustible as it sounds. The passionate ways of nature can be tamped down only so much by human control, and each cast member has their own beguiling and beguiled way of summoning their most passionate whims to demonstrate why that is.

The Beguiled is Recommended If You Like: Cold Mountain, Interpersonal gender dynamics, Double Indemnity

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mushrooms