I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1971 version with Clint Eastwood, but it probably wouldn’t matter if I did. Whether based on an original story or adapted from an existing source, Sofia Coppola’s films are so distinctive they drive all thoughts of comparisons away and feel like entirely her creations. The Beguiled has Coppola’s trademark languid, atmospheric style, and shares some similarities with her previous films like The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette – women cloistered away from the outside world, in a beautiful but stifling setting. There’s also a shade of Picnic at Hanging Rock, with all the imagery of young girls in their ghostly dresses.
The film begins like a gothic fairytale, with a young girl picking mushrooms in the shadowy woods. As she hums to herself, we learn that the setting is an American Southern state, a few years into the Civil War. She then stumbles on a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and decides to take him back to the girls’ school where she lives. Run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the school is all but abandoned: there are five students left and only one teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), still remains. In a spirit of Christian charity, Miss Martha decides that they should aid an enemy soldier, so they hide him in the downstairs music room away from the Confederate troops.
What effect will the appearance of a young handsome man have on an all-female house, bursting with hormones and secret hopes and desires? To the girls, he’s an exciting intrusion, made even more delicious by being an enemy, yet also rendered safe by his injury. Even the prim and steely Miss Martha is not immune, as she keeps her composure while sewing up McBurnley’s bloody wound but gets flustered when bathing the unconscious man’s naked chest and calves. Awake and eager to remain at this safe haven, crafty and chameleonic McBurnley takes care to win over every girl and woman, but Edwina, with her air of resignation and world-weariness, is the one most deeply affected by his attention. Is this powder keg of a situation going to explode? With a gun deliberately introduced in an early scene, the answer is fairly obvious. Even so, the change of pace from placid to melodramatic is a jolt, and it took me some time to sort out my response to the ending, which is simply chilling.
The intriguing male/female dynamics and lush, eerie visuals are the main attraction of this strange little film. It’s pretty rare to see a movie set in war-time that focuses squarely on women and their emotional lives. The performances are uniformly excellent; other than Kidman, Dunst and Farrell, Elle Fanning is also memorable as the over-ripened teenager bored out of her mind and eager to try out her feminine powers. While I like Coppola’s woozy, restrained approach, I was left wondering if the movie would have actually benefitted from even more overt melodrama, but it was enjoyable regardless.