No one gives voice to young women struggling to find their authentic identity better than Sofia Coppola. And her latest film, The Beguiled, is a no exception. This stunningly beautiful southern gothic tale set during the Civil War enchants viewers while keeping them slightly off balance. The film is a remake of the 1972 Don Siegel picture starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. The original version proved to be the biggest flop of Eastwood’s career, in part because he played a character against type, but also because several critics labeled the film misogynistic. While the new rendition of the film is similar in story, the way the story is told, the acting styles, characterization, and the cinematography itself, are all quite different. But probably the biggest difference between the original and Coppola’s version (for which she wrote the adapted screenplay), is the fact that this latest version is told from the viewpoint of the women characters, whereas Siegel chose to tell the story from the male perspective.
The basic plot of The Beguiled tells the story of a Yankee soldier who turns up injured near the premises of an all-girls’ school in Virginia. Young pupil Amy (Oona Lawrence) stumbles across Corporal McBurney (played by Colin Farrell) and helps him hobble to the school grounds, where he is greeted by headmistress Miss Martha, school teacher Edwina, and three additional young female students. The women, having lived an isolated life at the school, haven’t seen a man in many months. The women, crossing generations and social strata, flirt incessantly with McBurney, who is allowed to recover in their music room. The Union soldier is well-cared for, but it’s unclear whether he is their guest or their prisoner. He is consistently locked in his room, and is rarely allowed access to the rest of the house.
Coppola deftly allows the women’s desire to bubble just beneath the surface of the story. Each woman is attracted to McBurney for a different reason. The women are competitive in their attempts to garner the soldier’s attention, despite the fact he is the “enemy.” But Coppola steers clear of age-old stereotypes of catty women. Each woman has her own individual personality and inner turmoil, which the actresses bring to life on the screen. Kirsten Dunst communicates Edwina’s desire to leave her days at the girls’ school behind her for a life of adventure. Nicole Kidman allows the audience to really feel her inner struggle between her pious Christian values and her awakening sexual desire for McBurney. And Elle Fanning is the perfect young temptress, who has no real experience with men, but has been taught throughout her life that attracting a man is of the utmost importance.
And this is the true theme of The Beguiled; women’s roles in genteel society consisted of attracting a man, looking lovely, and avoiding taxing physical or mental work. These women, abandoned in a plantation to fend for themselves while the men in their lives (fathers, brothers, beaus) fight a war for the wrong reasons, have now learned to be independent. They rely on one another and their own personal strength to survive. With the addition of Corporal McBurney into their home, the women must decide whether to keep him locked away as a prisoner, or take advantage of the new masculine presence. Colin Farrell’s performance keeps the audience guessing as to his true nature, as he seems to vacillate from leering and lust-filled, to hard-working and genuinely appreciative of the women’s southern hospitality.
This film harkens back to Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, her first feature-length film. The films are similar in pacing and style, utilizing a largely female ensemble to explore young women’s search for identity and agency in a patriarchal society. The Beguiled is genuinely funny at times, but the film maintains a veneer of calm and control that the audience senses could break open at any time. Much like the façade of expected “lady-like” behavior that the women try to uphold through formal attire and manners, hiding their true selves and inner desires from the rest of the world. Until they, too, break through the bonds of social expectations, and allow themselves to be free.