Set in a girls' school during the American Civil War, The Beguiled follows the rivalries and tensions which emerge when a headmistress takes in a wounded Union soldier.
If you’re in the mood for some feminist revisionist cinema with a whole lot of Southern charm, then you should definitely check out The Beguiled.
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, the drama is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas P. Cullinan but is really a reimagining of Don Siegel’s 1971 film version which starred Clint Eastwood.
Set in Virginia during the American Civil War in 1864, the movie opens with schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovering Union Army Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) lying in nearby woods, having been wounded in the leg during battle.
The young girl carries him to her all-female boarding school, as run by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), and the soldier quickly persuades her to allow him refuge. Though locked in a room to recuperate, John’s arrival sparks an immediate fascination with the remaining teacher at the school, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and the students, including teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) and her younger classmates, Amy, Jane (Angourie Rice), Emily (Emma Howard) and Marie (Addison Riecke). Ideas of delivering John as a prisoner of war to the Confederate Army are quickly brushed away, and the women and girls fight for his attention having been cloistered within the grounds after the school after "the slaves ran away".
Soon, the soldier is healthy enough to begin helping with chores around the property, and simultaneously returns the affection of his keepers, especially Martha and Edwina, and to a lesser extent the meddlesome Alicia. But sexual tensions quickly lead to rivalries and the plot builds to a crescendo when John’s amorous antics are uncovered by the women, triggering a line of traumatic events.
Aside from the appearance of a couple of Confederate soldiers, John is the only male presence to grace the screen, and Coppola makes his body the subject of the female gaze, subverting previous iterations of the story with exploitative close-ups. Colin, who wisely chooses to keep his native accent, does a nice job of playing a man caught up in the midst of uncontrollable desire, and embraces his charismatic side to draw in the women, while also managing to appear truly menacing when he loses control over his situation, and inevitably, relinquishes his patriarchal dominance.
But the female director really makes her cast of women shine, especially Nicole Kidman, who does a convincing job as a Southern Belle just out of her prime and strikes the right notes with the delivery of lines, which at times are darkly comical.
Coppola muse Kirsten pulls off the sexually frustrated Edwina, who is stifled by her environment and the power games played out within the plot. Though it’s Elle’s troubled character which draws the most emotion, with her actions evoking audible sighs from viewers.
While the younger cast members may be overshadowed by the Hollywood star power in the film, the girls all deliver honest and natural performances, their innocence still shining through.
And cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd makes the setting a character unto itself, sharing panning shots of the dilapidated Greek-style plantation house where the school operates, and moody interior scenes, lit with candlelight.
As with her films The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, Coppola stuffs The Beguiled full of unsettling emotion and claustrophobia. But by wrapping up the film in a snappy 93 minutes, she manages to bring the shocking conclusion together with a virtuoso touch.
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