I finished watching The Beguiled in the late afternoon, around that time when the sun is at an angle that creates shadows all around and the world starts to look just slightly magical. And for a moment, I wasn’t sure that I’d actually left the theater.
However else you may end up feeling about The Beguiled, it’s likely to be the most beautiful movie you see this year, bathed in the golden haze of the evening, with images that stick in your mind—soft focus shots of girls sitting in trees, light penetrating the leaves, and glistening spider’s webs.
We open with Colin Farrell, a wounded Union soldier behind enemy lines in the middle of the Civil War. He’s discovered in the woods by a girl and taken to a girls’ school run by Nicole Kidman, where they decide to treat the injured man rather than to turn him over to Confederate soldiers straightaway. Only five or six girls remain at the school, being the few who have nowhere to go as the war rages on. And as they tend to Farrell, they start to fall under his spell, partly out of curiosity, partly out of sexual awakening, until each is vying for his attention. And for his part, Farrell indulges the girls, and Kidman, making each feel special and sometimes more. Farrell is in no hurry to leave, the girls are too entranced to want anything of the sort, and Kidman seems fascinated despite the moral tension of harboring the enemy.
That is, until the spell is broken. And then the dream-like nature of the Southern home and its idyllic garden become menacing—frightening, even, as Farrell turns from an apparent gentleman into something much different, and Kidman and the girls figure out exactly what they’re dealing with.
The Beguiled clearly owes a debt to Peter Weir’s great Picnic at Hanging Rock, among other movies, existing in a world just this side of reverie, and tinged with gothic horror. It’s the sort of movie you let wash over you, floating with its atmosphere and images, even as you walk out of the theater into the sunlight beyond.