The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s take on the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, and an earlier film adaptation by Don Siegal, starring Clint Eastwood. Coppola has a history of exploring female sexuality and power in works like The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette. Now she adds another clever and complex study – one with knowing humour and a whole lot of melodrama thrown in.
It’s 1864, three years into the American Civil War. At Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a small group of students wait out the fighting. Led by the upright Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), they slavishly continue their pre-war schedule of lessons. These women are abandoned; as one of the girls explains, they have nowhere else to go. Starved of male company, they live a cloistered existence. Men are something alien and frightening. The thunder of distant artillery fire and glimpses of smoke through the trees remind us they’re under constant threat of attack, trapped by circumstance and convention.
Into this refuge comes Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an injured Yankee soldier who throws himself upon their mercy. McBurney’s entrance is the catalyst that unravels the civilised world that Martha is so desperately trying to preserve.
Aware of the potent effect he’s having, McBurney begins flirting with his new admirers, but he knows he’s vulnerable – at any time they can turn him over to the Confederates. He’s in fear for his life and has nowhere else to go. Eastwood’s McBurney was predatory and dangerous. Farrell’s portrayal is more ambiguous; we’re not sure whether, after the deprivations of army life, he can’t quite believe his luck, or if he’s manipulating the women for his own devious ends.
Coppola has chosen to make him an Irish mercenary, a ‘bluebelly’ fighting for pay, thereby taking the sting out of the political divide; he’s not really the enemy. Coppola says she cast Farrell because she wanted someone dark and swarthy, the physical opposite of the pale southern belles that surround him, and Farrell, with his Irish brogue, seems all the more exotic for it. As the women fall prey to his charms, intense jealousies and rivalries surface. Sexual tension simmers beneath the polite veneer.
Kidman is brilliant as Martha, her cool composure faltering just enough to expose her inner conflict. During an early scene, as she washes McBurney, her gaze drinks in his flesh, her hand lingers just a bit too long, the sweat springs at her brow – never has a sponge bath been so sexy. Kirsten Dunst is also excellent as repressed, romantic Edwina, and Elle Fanning has great fun as femme fatale in the making, Alicia.
History takes a back seat here. The omission of a black female slave who appears in both the novel and the ’71 adaptation sidesteps wider issues of race and politics. It’s easy to forget about the war outside the walls. It’s made clear – the slaves have already fled. Coppola has been accused of whitewashing history, but I don’t think so. This is not a film about slavery and her decision serves to increase the focus on the story at hand. As Coppola herself says, ‘According to historians and several women’s journals from the time, many slaves had departed, and a great number of white women of the South were left in isolation, holding on to a world whose time had rightly come to an end—a world built on slave labour…The circumstances in which the women in my story find themselves are historically accurate—and not a distortion of history, as some have claimed.’
Similarly, the overwrought hysteria and hints of McBurney’s morally dubious intentions are toned right down. One particularly gruesome scene is omitted altogether. Hints of witchcraft, which were heavy-handed in the ’71 version, are tentative here, but we still get the point. That’s not to say gothic elements have been stripped away. The lush setting, trees draped in Spanish moss, the constant chirr of insects and the slanted, hazy sunlight all create a languid, haunted atmosphere. The mansion itself, as nature begins to encroach, is a glorious metaphor for an antebellum ‘golden’ age on the brink of destruction and the internal forces threatening the equilibrium of the house. Interiors are all shadow and candlelight, a palate of neutral tones, so the bright scarlet slash of blood against white linen is a shock when it comes.
This is a film about repression, desire and sexual power. Unlike the ’71 film, which is mostly told from McBurney’s point of view, Coppola focuses on the women and their relationships. At times there is a slightly disjointed feel but overall it’s compelling, witty and deliciously funny. The Beguiled is a restrained and masterful lesson in show not tell. The beauty is in the silence, the complicity, the meaning between the lines and, finally, the unsettling ambiguity about exactly who is to blame for what.