Sofia Coppola's Captivating Remake of Civil War Drama 'The Beguiled'
The unseen cicadas hiss from the twisted branches in the woods where a girl carefully gathers mushrooms. The thunder of cannons can also be heard from the far distance. Virginia, 1864, is a shifting battlefield in the final phase of the Civil War. Perhaps it’s not shocking that the girl, a pupil in the “seminary for young ladies” tucked into the woods, should find a man in blue against a tree trunk—a Union corporal separated from his regiment and bleeding badly.
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Thus begins Sofia Coppola’s elegant and morally ambiguous remake of the 1971 film The Beguiled. The original starred Clint Eastwood as the wounded Union soldier fallen into a nest of Confederate women. In the retelling, Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, a charming if increasingly roguish Irishman a long way from his adopted home in New York. Nicole Kidman is Miss Farnsworth, the seminary’s no-nonsense headmistress charged with conjugating French verbs, teaching the rudiments of musicianship and endowing the daughters of good Southern families with a suitable education. Kirsten Dunst is Edwina, the last remaining teacher among the handful of girls left stranded when battle lines isolated them from their families.
The women in Coppola’s rendition of The Beguiled transcend the stereotype of fan-fluttering Southern belles, while remaining plausible in their time and place. They are plucky and possess complete agency within their school; they grow their own food, carefully ration their provisions, deal with Confederate authorities and, when an injured enemy soldier stumbles into their lap, they carry him into the music room of their Corinthian-columned mansion. Miss F sterilizes his leg wounds with whiskey, gingerly removes the shrapnel and sews him shut as if mending a torn garment. Some of the girls huff over helping a Yankee, but religion is at the heart of the curriculum, and Farnsworth understands her actions as Christian charity.
But then what? For reasons unexplained, Miss F surprises the girls, watching with faces pressed against the window, by not turning the corporal over to the Confederate patrol at their gate. Will he be surrendered to Southern forces once his leg heals? Will he be allowed to rejoin his side? Soon enough, the corporal makes himself useful—chopping wood and letting it be known that he’d like to stay on. It’s not his war, really.
From the onset, the presence of a man changes the school’s temperature. The girls begin to primp. Guarded smiles are exchanged, especially between the corporal and the sheltered Emily (Emma Howard)—but not only them. Even Miss Farnsworth’s eyes momentarily glint in apparent fascination. Sexuality heats up in the confined space of the seminary, driving hearts to beat faster and triggering the possibility of emotional manipulation on all sides. And then things get ugly.
Coppola directs her captivatingly suspenseful film with an eye toward Southern Gothic. Mist crawls through the woods; the seminary’s manor house is framed like a tintype in the half oval of a bent tree. The interior is curtained against the sun and lit at night by pale candles. Outside, the corporal catches a glimpse of a spider’s web, gossamer threads glistening in strands of sunlight. Is he caught in a web or is he the spider? The Beguiled leaves you to wonder.