Who is the beguiled? Is it the ladies of Miss Farnsworth’s girls school, who take in a wounded Yankee soldier? Is it the soldier, who finds himself surrounded by young female flesh? Or is it all of them? Perhaps everyone is both beguiling and beguiled in Sofia Coppola’s new film.
Miss Farnsworth’s school is set back in the woods of Virginia during the American Civil War. The ladies are largely sheltered from the fighting; the occasional Confederate patrol passes by, and artillery smoke can be seen over the trees, but that is all. Until, that is, young Amy (Oona Laurence), while out picking mushrooms, discovers the injured Union soldier McBurney (Colin Farrell). Nominally out of Christian charity, the ladies allow the Corporal to stay, until such time as he is recovered and they can hand him over to one of the patrols.
What ensues is a (both hostile and sexual) tension fraught chamber piece. We share the ladies’ isolation and the Corporal’s confinement; the furthest we are allowed to venture from the school is the woods surrounding it. The aspect ratio (1.66:1, in case you were wondering) accentuates this. It narrows the visual focus, just as the setting narrows the narrative.
The cause of the tension is, of course, Corporal McBurney, a Union soldier in Confederate territory, and a man in female territory. He is the first man that the ladies have had substantial contact with in some time, and stirs something new in the more pubescent students. Much of the film comprises of the women succumbing to sexual jealousy as they vie for the Corporal’s attention. It’s all a bit backwards, a bit misjudged. The Beguiled is never misogynistic, but it doesn’t have much good to say about these women. They fawn and giggle and act as if 150 years of gender struggles never happened.
The exceptions are Amy and Miss Farnsworth. Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is a prim and proper Southern lady, who attempts to keep the Colonel sequestered for propriety’s sake of nothing else. But when things go south (pun intended), she unveils a dignified but quietly savage determination to keep her girls safe no matter the cost. Then there is Amy, too young to fall prey to the heady desires suffusing the school. She is inquisitive and precocious and stubbornly sees the good in everyone. Kidman and Laurence give the best performances in what is a uniformly good cast.
Unfortunately, good performances are not enough to save The Beguiled from its own crippling intangibility. The film is a wispy ephemera; try scratching beneath the surface and you’ll push a hole into its hollow centre. I felt like, had I sneezed in the cinema, the film would have floated off the screen.
The theme here is the resilience of women; the female as survivor. But that theme was explored more fully in Park’s The Handmaiden, a film that had the guts to take the theme to bizarre and delightful extremes. The Beguiled ends, not with a bravado bang, but with a genteel whimper.
Coppola (who also writes, adapting from the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan) mounts her production with an elegance and grace that is befitting the beautiful Southern setting. But all the sumptuous gowns and stolen glances aren’t enough to save this from being a mere confection. I didn’t dislike the film, but I wasn’t beguiled.