When it comes to the distance that exists between men and women, conventional wisdom states that it doesn’t matter if it’s a few inches or opposing sides of the Potomac; neither party will ever truly know the answer to the mystery inside the other’s head. But be that as it may, the heated, sweaty, and repressed ideas crossing the minds of every character in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is as visible as the pastels on their Southern belle dresses—or the blue in his Union uniform. Perhaps that is why they all remain so unknowable to each other as this slow, smoked story careens into the absolute least desirable no man’s land for gender relations.
A remake of the classic Civil War melodrama that starred Clint Eastwood in 1971, Coppola’s more patient and lyrical Beguiled doesn’t so much replay the plot as it re-contextualizes it. No longer is this a tale of what happens when an injured Yankee soldier turns up at a Virginian boarding school for young Confederate daughters. Now it’s a Southern Gothic vision of potential sisters whose ritualized (and forgotten) lives on the fringe of the frontline is upended by a foreign presence—a man who might as well be a psychosexual Rorschach test.
Each major character, save for Colin Farrell’s Cpl. John McBurney, is a distinctly feminine presence at a different stage of her life. Somehow the role of innocence expected of their stations has survived in the face of an apocalyptic war, and yet McBurney might burn that all down too, even if all he wants is days filled with peace and no battle—and maybe his nights shared with more than one mistress of the house.
The premise of the film is as expected as it is deceptively simple. In 1864 during the third year of the war, McBurney is discovered by young Amy (Oona Laurence) while she’s picking mushrooms. McBurney has fled a nearby battle that has left him with plenty of metal in his leg. Taken in by the few remaining girls of a near-abandoned school for Southern girls, McBurney’s presence is both dreaded and not-so-secretly celebrated by the students. At last, there is something exciting in their lives and it is as handsome as Colin Farrell with an Irish brogue (he was recruited into the Union Army while fresh off the boat).
The most curious of the students is perhaps Alicia (Elle Fanning), the eldest girl who imagines herself as a Scarlett O’Hara-type romantic heroine, but is in reality closer to the self-destructive belle than that. She calls McBurney a blue-belly on first sight, and one suspects she is quietly studying his torso just to be sure. Even more tense, however, are McBurney’s interactions with the girls’ instructors: Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a buttoned up and somewhat dowdy schoolteacher, and headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Martha runs the school and desperately tries to keep the girls safe. But even she finds herself in danger of turning her head for John’s self-serving, if admittedly not wholly ill-intentioned, wiles.
Much will likely be made in comparing The Beguiled of 2017 to Coppola’s first feature film, The Virgin Suicides. Both feature Kirsten Dunst and both are about a group of young women whose cloistered lives can lead to extreme, violent results. Beyond the period though, The Beguiled’s real distinguishing characteristic is the age differences between all of the women present. With Kidman playing a fierce matriarchal figure, Dunst a young woman whose ballroom days may have been stolen by the war, and Fanning (another Coppola stalwart) yearning for her chance, each interacts differently and conspiratorially with Farrell’s wounded warrior.
John is even able to charm the young ones as little sisters whose crushes he’ll feign obliviousness to. For this Union soldier, in addition to not even be a true blue Northerner, is separated from Eastwood’s take on the character in that Farrell always appears to be clouded by his own desires and impotent confusion. In spite of any posture, he is not a cool customer, but a scared veteran who is out to take what he can, by day and night—and unknowingly carving a ghastly battlefield plan for himself.
The most striking transition though that Coppola offers the material is how much stronger the women themselves are, particularly Martha. By emphasizing the female perspective toward the invader, Martha has become a fierce but wearied woman, raising girls for a world that is already gone. Their dresses remain colorful and spirited, but the hoop skirts have long been removed, and increasingly so has their sense of hope. But that den mother aspect of Kidman’s delicately grizzled role is what offers the story a sense of disintegrating grandeur, and how sex just complicates things, period.
To be sure, The Beguiled is a feminist film, and one with a slyly malevolent sense of humor to boot. The film, perhaps by design, would fail the Bechdel Test, which states named female characters must carry on conversations that are about something other than a man. While there are plenty of those, every interaction, glance, and affectation utilized by the women is implicitly a reaction to a male being in the house, and how that changes the dynamics for everyone involved. Whether it is evening prayers or piano practice, afternoon chores or how they choose to walk (and not walk) by a locked door, they always have a gnawing obsession compelling their thoughts. As romantic intrigue gives way to darker impulses, they aren’t turning on one another, but circling the wagons.
Coppola stages all of this with a wistful hand, right down to utilizing the Academy aspect ratio. Consequently, the picture is elegiac and haunted. From the opening frames of a Confederate hymn drifting across bald cypress trees and thunder-stricken gray skies, there is a distinctly Southern shaded specter permeating the picture. While it never quite slides into the realm of horror, Coppola knowingly conjures something supernatural about what drives these women in the shaded margins of America’s bloodiest war.
That allegiance will also run thicker than any outside force’s beliefs too.
The Beguiled opens on June 23.