Adapted by writer/director Sofia Coppola from the eponymous novel by Thomas Cullinan, The Beguiled is a psychological drama set in a girls’ boarding school in the American South in 1864 during the Civil War.

The few remaining boarders at the school, a group of sheltered young women, take in an injured enemy soldier. As they provide refuge and tend to his wounds, the house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries and taboos are broken in an unexpected turn of events.

The book had already been adapted for the screen in 1971. Coppola watched it on the recommendation of her friend and production designer Anne Ross. Intrigued, the director returned to the book and was inspired to tell the story from the female characters’ perspective.

“I’ve always been interested in observing the dynamics of a group – especially females,” says the director, whose films from her astonishing 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides have always featured complex women.

“I feel that the dynamics between women can be very under-the-surface and subtle, whereas men are more overt. So, I was drawn to this story because it was about a group of women – and it did remind me a little bit of The Virgin Suicides, with girls cut off from the world. And, because I’d never really done a movie about women at varying ages at different points in their lives and how they all relate to each other. In the story, they each relate differently to the man.”

Coppola has mobilised an extraordinary cast for The Beguiled. Nicole Kidman stars as Miss Martha, the head of the school, Kirsten Dunst is teacher Edwina Morrow and Elle Fanning is young student Alicia. Colin Farrell is the soldier at the centre of the maelstrom.

The house is taken over with sexual tension and dangerous rivalries and taboos are broken

While there is tension – both sexual and otherwise – throughout the story, Farrell gravitated to what he deems an “extraordinary” script because “it looks at how whatever innocence has been maintained in a time of war can be lost. It also explores how the more animalistic aspects of human behaviour can be provoked – and pervade – even when you’re not on the front lines.”

Says Dunst: “The story is Southern Gothic, with things bubbling under until they get to a boiling point and then an explosion happens. It’s not horror, but it feels like there is horror in it, with intensity and destruction – all made more compelling because this is happening among women. When Sofia told me about the idea a couple of years ago, my impression was that she was drawn to the subject matter of so many women together alone.”

Commenting on the characters, Dunst says that, “Miss Martha is not only head of the school, she is also head of what has become a household. My character, Edwina, is like a minder for the girls. But with the war having gone on for so long, we’ve also become like mothers to them.”

Coppola notes that she has always wanted to work with Kidman. “When I was writing the screenplay I pictured her and that helped me,” she says. “I knew she would bring a lot to Miss Martha, including humour and emotion. Nicole can play it so commanding that you know she’s in charge of the whole group.

For her part, Kidman was happy to be on board and support Coppola as a female director. “I always thought that she made such atmospheric movies in such a signature style. That was the main thing which drew me to working with her.”

Fanning adds: “Besides working with Sofia again (after 2010’s Somewhere), this was a reason for me to be part of The Beguiled: the women hold the power in this story – even though it’s set during the Civil War.” As for the only male role, the soldier McBurney intrigued the actor that played him. Farrell says: “He’s somewhat narcissistic, yet he’s a good judge of people in that he reads what they need. He senses what they may find disdainful and stays away from that, going instead to their soft spot – whether it’s giving a kind word or being more reserved.”

The core cast is joined by young actresses Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Emma Howard and Addison Riecke as fellow students.

Coppola’s filmmaking team includes production designer Ross, film editor Sarah Flack, costume designer Stacey Battat and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd.

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