“We need chloroform and water” orders boarding school headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), like Mary Poppins getting her charges in order. It’s a surprise she doesn’t say “spit-spot”. It’s this sense of female imperturbability which makes The Beguiled so subversive.
Sofia Coppola ditches the wayward sexual politics of Don Siegel’s 1971 version with Clint Eastwood, preferring to focus on the can-do survival instincts of her ensemble of female stars. In fact, it’s telling the earlier film is known as a Clint Eastwood film. Apologies to Colin Farrell, but this is Kidman’s movie. The Civil War is limping exhausted and bloody to some kind of ragged conclusion. In the mist-laden woods of Virginia, Amy finds a wounded Yankee soldier Corp. John McBurney (Farrell), while out looking for mushrooms. Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies is a grand pillared mansion that has seen better days, but for McBurney it represents a safe refuge from the battlefield he fled and the soldiers who would either leave him to rot in a prison or shoot him for desertion.
Farnsworth wavers as to whether to alert the authorities they have an enemy prisoner or give him aid and sanctuary. It’s ultimately her Christian moral core which decides her on the latter – though there are hints that it helps he looks like Colin Farrell. He is tended and his body washed in an almost gently erotic scene which sets the tone for the sexual atmosphere generally. This is not going to be a sizzler of furious passion, but rather a quiver from the path of probity. His presence convalescing in the music room livens things up for the girls, who have been sleepwalking through their lessons. Their presence at the school has more to do with killing time until the war is over, than academic advancement.
Second in command Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, is the first to stir, but even formerly hostile students like Alicia (Elle Fanning) warm to the softly spoken Dubliner, who only joined the army for the $300 to take someone else’s place. Coppola leaves McBurney’s motivation ambiguous. Does he really have affection for any of the girls, or is he trying to manipulate them just to save his own skin? He certainly manages to befriend all of them and, once his leg is healed enough to allow it, he’s out in the garden working up a sweat as the girls each connive to spy on him chopping wood and hoeing. Coppola keeps her tale as tight as a corset and her narrative as straight as the sewing that her girls do whether it’s wounds or hems.
This all means that there is a sometimes startling brevity to what might have been key scenes – a face is shaved, a party of visiting soldiers confronted and a leg hacked off all off-screen, leaving the drama more restrained than expected. This is almost the antithesis of torrid, but it has a powdery dryness, a sly wit which is indeed beguiling. Coppola’s career has been marked by several duds as well as some early high points, but The Beguiled sees the director return to form in some style.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty