Sophia Coppola has given us a slow burn remake of the 1971 The Beguiled with less male swagger and more female resilience. Although it is hard to like many of the characters, there is a subtle depth to their motivations and sometimes shocking choices.
Set in 1864, three years into the American Civil War, a wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), is found by a girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), while she is foraging for mushrooms near her Virginian girls’ school. She helps him back to the school where the few remaining girls and teachers agree, at first reluctantly, to hide him until he is well enough to be turned over to the Confederates. The school is largely abandoned, with most of the girls being retrieved by their families as the war intensifies.
The head of the school is Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and with mousy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) she keeps up school rituals and etiquette despite the violence and crumbling social order that circles around them. Dressed and corseted in starched whites and pastels, the girls embroider, wash clothes and keep up with their music and French. The servants, who would have been slaves, are gone and the only contact with the outside world is the occasional visit from passing soldiers.
The sudden appearance of a stranger and, most importantly, a man in this world of privileged women creates distraction and a focus for frustration and desire. McBurney is at first grateful for the sanctuary, knowing his fortune and, perhaps, assuming that women will more easily be sympathetic. He has charisma and is artful in his application of it, making use of the time he has alone with each woman or girl to forge a different bond. For Amy he is a friend, for Miss Martha he is an equal, for Edwina he is an opportunity to escape and for Alicia (Elle Fanning), he is an object of desire. It all begins to unravel when the women realise his duplicity.
Coppola is skilled at creating a sense of time and place. The towering columns of the school, the wild, tangled growth of the garden, the candlelit dining room and the whiteness of the women’s elaborate and impractical clothing combines with a music-less soundtrack to immerse us in a world so oppressive.The pace is languid and we are given time to get to know the key characters as they are confronted by terrible choices.
My memory of the 1971 version, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, is that McBurney is a bit of a cad but essentially a good guy and the women are jealous, repressed harpies. Coppola’s changes are small but we see the fragility of McBurney and that his error is in assuming the women have no power. The women individually are victims of a life that is not of their choosing, that gives them little agency other than to look pretty and to please others. It is when they come together that their strength is significant.
Have you seen this film? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.