The Farnsworth Seminary for Girls is a school in Virginia that, against all odds, remains operational three years into the Civil War. The school is overseen by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and lessons are taught by Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). Under the tutelage of these women, five students learn their arts: sewing, french, music. Proper lessons for southern ladies. Beyond the gates of the school is a road, occasionally traversed by soldiers both Union and Confederate, and beyond the road are the constant reminders of war: smoke rising from the trees, the drumming sounds of explosions, the pounding steps of battalions marching to battle.
Judging by the condition of the grounds and the plantation/school itself, it’s safe to assume that the women of Farnsworth Seminary have been isolated for years. While the manor they inhabit may be falling apart, the Christian manners of these ladies are not. Which is why, when a young student named Amy comes upon Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier hiding in the forest, the women bring him into their care, agreeing to tend to his wounds before deciding his ultimate fate.
Such care is, after all, the Christian thing to do.
Thus is the setup for Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. Coppola’s story (and it is wholly hers, as she wrote, produced and directed the film) is taken from the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. That book was made into a film in 1971, starring Clint Eastwood, but Coppola has sizably trimmed the source material down to only its barest elements. Gone is the incest plot line, as well as the sex and tomfoolery. Also removed, with greater consequences for Coppola’s treatment of the material, is the slave of the school (Hallie in the first film, Matilda in the original novel).
What Coppola is left with is the imaginative potential of isolated women trapped in a war beyond their reach. The question of whether to keep the Corporal causes the women grave worry–they are led by their faith in this decision, we are assured. But after he’s allowed into the house, things get complicated quickly.
The women and girls start slipping into his room to meet this stranger. He immediately begins forming relationships with each, providing the physical reality to fulfill the fantasy each longs for. Among them are Amy (Oona Laurence), the child who found him and who forms a fatherly and innocent relationship with the stranger from Ireland; Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest student with strong sexual appetites, who wants a man to engage them; Edwina, the teacher who wants a way out of the prison of the school, the war, and the life that traps her; Miss Martha, a woman burdened with the education and protection of her students, who wants a partner to share the load.
John is happy to be the man that each is looking for, because doing so might provide a way out of the war. Of course, all of these relationships cannot go on simultaneously and forever. John’s wound is healing, Edwina is jealous, Martha is protective, and the safety of the girls must be kept as the highest priority.
Coppola presents her war story with a bit of a light touch.Words like evocative, dreamlike, ephemeral describe the film well. There’s comic sensibility, and there’s airiness in the presentation. Much of it feels like a fantasy. The detailed beauty of the light on trees, the swaying dresses against the floor boards, the filters that separate the colors on-screen, all lend a feeling of eeriness to the women, and calm to the man, despite what is obviously a dangerous situation.
In that way, The Beguiled feels more like Virgin Suicides than anything Coppola has made since that film. The Beguiled is a small story, isolated from the much larger conflict that is tearing apart the country. De-contextualizing the movie from the larger world is not without cost for the film. The mannered Christian ladies of this school are the daughters of slave-owners. They live in a house with slave quarters. They survive with the aid of soldiers fighting for the Confederacy. That this is true and is largely ignored shouldn’t go unnoticed. When Miss Martha reads from her scripture and asks the girls what the Christian thing to do is, it happens in the context of slavery and the south. Not telling those stories, tells us something about The Beguiled.
But such matters are not the interest of Coppola’s film. What carries weight in The Beguiled is not the the war, but the sense of impending doom that moves through the school. A man appears from the mist, hurt and in need of help. That he cannot stay feels true, but why that’s true is harder to grasp. “Why” is always slippery in a dream.
-Christopher Zumski Finke