Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola (screenplay), Thomas Cullinan (novel), Albert Maltz & Irene Kamp (The Beguiled 1971 version screenplay)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning
A playful chamber drama tinged with nervous desire, Sofia Coppola’s latest takes the director’s predilection for insular worlds to a new extreme. Her The Beguiled is a remake of sorts of a wild, pulpy 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Paige and directed by Don Siegel. (Both films are based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan). The story is set in 1864 at a secluded Southern girls boarding school in Virginia, where Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (here played by Colin Farrell) is hesitantly taken in after his left leg is severely crippled in battle.
The Beguiled is not an interrogation of the broader political machinations of the Civil War. It examines white women left behind by war, a study of desire that is pent up in corsets and isolated in the woods. It does not portray slavery in any capacity, and actually removes a key character. In the 1971 film, one of the women at the boarding school is a slave named Hallie, who tends to McBurney’s wounds.
“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way,” Coppola said to BuzzFeed about not including the character. “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
The BuzzFeed report continues:
When asked if Hallie’s presence might have altered the tenor of The Beguiled’s explorations of womanhood and girlhood, Coppola said, “I feel like you can’t show everyone’s perspective in a story. I was really focused on just this one group of women who were really isolated and weren’t prepared. A lot of slaves had left at that time, so they were really— that emphasized that they were cut off from the world. [Hallie’s] story’s a really interesting story, but it’s a whole other story, so I was really focused on these women.”
In The Beguiled, Coppola is chronicling the decay of routine, of a bubble about to burst. Her film does not glorify or glamorize the white Southern lifestyle built upon slavery, but is embedded in its quiet, gradual decay. Is this an acceptable reason for writing out a character like Hallie? Perhaps not, but remaking a story like The Beguiled is a Catch-22, as Ira Madison III argues in The Daily Beast. “There are plenty of people who could tackle a black female slave’s inclusion in a story like The Beguiled, but Coppola is the last person you should ever want it from,” he writes.
Though The Beguiled may highlight some of Coppola’s limitations, the movie is also an atmospheric marvel of erotic dread. The boarding school, an imposing white building slowly being reclaimed by the Virginia forest, is secluded enough that the presence of soldiers from either side is somewhat out of the ordinary. The sun is hidden away, save for bursts of white light that penetrate the Spanish moss overwhelming the surrounding trees.
Coppola uses natural light for the interior shots, the plethora of candles at night giving the five schoolgirls and their guardians a haunted glow. They pray and eat together, divvy up the chores, and do their best to go about their day as the sound of bombs rumble in the distance. At one point, a character sees smoke billowing over the trees. It won’t be long until the war is over, McBurney tells the school’s overseer Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). Sooner than her side wants to admit, he adds.
McBurney knows he is an unwelcome visitor on limited time, and is giving the performance of his life at the school. Actually, it’s probably more apt to say performances. His personality shifts noticeably depending on who he’s talking to. When it’s one of the young pupils at the school, he’s an inquisitive father figure, remarking on their thoughtful gestures and attempting to ease their skittishness. Around their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), he detects her yearning and quietly pounces on any chance to compliment her or engage in conversation.
With Miss Martha, McBurney himself often turns into a kind of nervous pupil, avoiding prolonged eye contact and giving short, to the point answers to her questions. Kidman brings frankness and steely determination to the role. Unlike Edwina and the girls, she is not easily thrown off by the presence of a man. She is wary of the danger he poses, but can’t bring herself to turn him over to be a prisoner of the Confederacy, either.
McBurney thinks he can see what each of them wants, though Coppola and her actresses reveal his miscalculation by steadily allowing the story to simmer to a boil. He heals rather rapidly, and not long after he’s using a cane to walk he’s outside tending to the garden and helping around the school grounds as needed. His sweat-glistened figure captures the attention of Edwina and the eldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) more than his amateur attempts at verbal seduction.
As the women become more comfortable around McBurney, they invite him to take part in their daily routines and join them for a dinner. Some of The Beguiled’s best moments are the simple observations the girls and women make about changing their appearances, which has a wry comedic payoff when they all sit around the same dinner table and compete for McBurney’s attention over apple pie. He thinks his prison might actually be a temporary oasis, but doesn’t anticipate the torrent of longing his presence unleashes at the school, or the dire consequences of acting on his own desire.
To Martha, McBurney is a reminder of instability and, as he continues to recover, an erotic catalyst of it. When The Beguiled violently cracks its polite facade, Coppola keeps the focus on the dynamics between the women. She often does this by emphasizing her actresses’ quiet gestural ticks or through a barrage of glances edited together in overwhelming succession. Martha is determined to restore order for the girls, while Edwina is angling for a way out. Dunst steals nearly every scene she’s in, quietly exuding the teacher’s longing for a life beyond the school gates, and maybe even beyond the war. The impossibility of this only adds to the character’s tragedy, and the movie’s as well. Though the war has not yet landed on their doorstep, they are still surrounded by it.