A young girl walks down a deserted wooded road, swinging a basket of mushrooms and singing a battle song. Her feet crunch in the gravel, a steady march, and cannons rumble like thunder in the distance. We are told it is 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War. This little soldier is Amy (Oona Laurence), chatty, empathetic, excited, and soon she has scooped up a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), like a broken bird, to bring home to her boarding school for girls.
So opens Sophia Coppola’s latest masterpiece, “The Beguiled,” a tale of feminine warfare. The film is based on a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan, but it is more directly in conversation with the 1971 film “The Beguiled,” starring Clint Eastwood as the Union soldier, directed by Don Siegel. In fact, it could be seen as a direct rebuke to that film, in which the presence of the soldier sends all the women and girls in the house into a lustful tizzy, before it all falls apart.
In Coppola’s film there’s an interest piqued by McBurney’s foreign masculine presence, ranging from suspicion and wariness to a quiet, repressed lust. The camera carefully regards McBurney’s exposed, unconscious body while Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) sponges the battle grime from his skin. It is the first moment when he is unknowingly under her control, and not the last.
Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is studiously naturalistic in style. The hazy light is filtered through leaves or lace; the interior of the house is dim unless lit by candlelight. The emotions are reserved, internal, psychology communicated in inferences. Some of the performances are rather broad from the young actresses playing the schoolgirls, including Laurence, and Elle Fanning who speaks volumes with the fluttering of her eyelids. That hint of artifice is necessary for this film, which is more social commentary than social realism.
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McBurney may think he’s hit the jackpot in terms of finding himself in enemy territory, but these Southern belles are fiercer than they look, outfitted in pastels, jewels, and delicate braids. McBurney is on their turf, and they set the terms of battle. There is no room for masculine aggression to flourish here. A pistol in the home represents men’s warfare, passed down by and controlled by men, but it is impotent. In Coppola’s hands, “The Beguiled” is a film about women’s work, and women’s war. The skills of sewing, cooking, foraging are the weapons in their arsenal, used for their survival.
Nicole Kidman is particularly, unsurprisingly excellent in her performance as the steely Miss Martha. She is controlled and in control, unflappable. Her genteel manners and femininity coexist easily with her toughness. Coppola’s direction exudes as sense of feminine toughness and control. There is a sense of rigor and thematic richness in her direction. There is a sense of weightiness and significance to everything on screen, utilizing repeated motifs and symbols effectively.
While the two sides are spoken of often — McBurney is after all, a prisoner of war of these Confederate women — the real issues of the war fade into the background in this school for girls. This fresh-off-the-boat Irishman isn’t driven by a sense of duty or patriotism. Here, the war is not about a position, but a preservation of the self, and the women fight not for the South, but for themselves.
Rated: R for some sexuality. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning. Director: Sophia Coppola. Running time: 93 minutes. Theater: Flicks.