In Sophia Coppola’s reinterpretation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film by the same name, The Beguiled opens with an eleven-year-old girl gathering mushrooms in her straw basket deep in a quiet wood in Virginia. Conjuring an image of Little Red Riding Hood soon coming upon a big bad wolf, we see her discover the wounded John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier in the midst of the Civil War. The child decides to take him back to her girls’ boarding school. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is reluctant but feels a moral obligation to tend to him. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher locks McBurney in the music room, terrified of what could be a menace to their highly secluded and precarious lifestyle. In a series of lovingly erotic shots of headmistress Martha’s bathing Farrell’s chest, forearms, calves, and neck as she ministers to his injuries, the viewer sees a foreshadowing of what is to come.
Meanwhile, the students—especially the sexually blossoming teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), huddle by the door, to get at least a brief glimpse of probably the only man to ever visit the boarding school. Aware of McBurney’s sexual drive as well as their own (albeit sometimes subconsciously), each girl except the youngest who is eleven, preens in front of him: with pearl earrings, a formal dress, or bearing small gifts. Miss Martha looks at all of this in horror, but raging hormones are everywhere.
McBurney is a shape-shifter, and his foil are the two adult women: Martha and Edwina. At times respectful or seductive, compassionate or manipulative, sometimes earnest, McBurney manages to be both for each resident.
The Beguiled is just that: hypnotic, mesmerizing, and unsettling. With each scene– fleeting, things unsaid, –there are repressed emotions and dreams, a stultifying code of norms for girls and women. The drama is internal–expressed in the cinematography by the placement of scenes within the boundaries of the boarding school. Perhaps symbolic of the interior life of the female realm where women, confined by their circumstances, can only be independent when the male lies powerless, the viewer sees what happens when women, unaccustomed to this power, react. The mere presence of a man unexpectedly and violently alters their group dynamic.
The pacing for this historical drama is at times slow. However, The Beguiled is worth watching, especially for the originality of Sophia Coppola’s world view. Both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst infuse humor and intensity into their roles, giving performances that are perfectly interwoven. This is perhaps Colin Farrell’s best performance yet. And Elle Fanning is a wonder, embodying teenage sexuality, giving heat through her languid gestures, evoking a boredom on the verge of explosion.
The Beguiled rages with what lies underneath the surface. This is Sophia Coppola at her very best.
Note: Currently available on Netflix (DVD)