An open question lies at the heart of The Beguiled and it’s a simple one… who, precisely, *is* the beguiled in Sofia Coppola’s story? Come the conclusion, you may not have reached a simple answer. Beguiled, in its essential form, means ‘charmed’ or ‘to charm’. The answer, considering the plot, may appear obvious but it’s anything but.
The Beguiled started life as a 1966 novel called ‘A Painted Devil’ by late author Thomas P. Cullinan, and was first adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, with Clint Eastwood in the role of wounded Corporal John McBurney in 1864, during the middle of the American Civil War, a Union soldier who is found injured in the woods of Mississippi by the youngest girl in a Christian seminary & finishing school and upon being brought into the household out of Christian charity, begins to inveigle himself into the lives of a group of girls and women starved of testosterone, with disturbing results.
Having not seen the original it’s hard to compare, but Coppola in reimagining the story was aware that Siegel’s previous take—as one can imagine from a director known for his long-standing working relationship with Eastwood—very much pitched the focus from the point of view of McBurney. A male viewpoint of an extremely female world which Coppola wanted to flip and invert, re-tasking McBurney as the enigmatic outside force who begins to psychologically distract and expose the taut, bridled sexuality of these women against the spirit of their God-fearing values.
This Coppola achieves, right from the opening shot as the youngest girl Amy (Oona Laurence) gaily skips through the woods around the seminary picking flowers and mushrooms, before colliding with the reality of a world just on their periphery. The picture never is played from McBurney’s perspective, not once. It’s always from the angle of this contained cluster of women, led by Nicole Kidman’s restrained matriarch Miss Martha Farnsworth, who kept these orphaned and unwanted girls together even when much of the school abandoned the area as the War grew steadily nearer.
The American Civil War of course ended just a year after The Beguiled is set and the Union won, with the Confederacy of the eleven southern states who seceded from the United States collapsing. These women live in the South, with elegant drawling accents and hazy sunshine forever breaking through onto the grand, white, Roman-style portico building. They almost live in a bubble, outside of time and place, protected and restricted from the world around them, only glimpsed as occasional Confederate soldiers pass by the gates and the distant, booming sound of cannons or glimpses of black smoke in the distance.
Hence why McBurney constitutes such a gunshot to their collective senses and sends them all into turmoil, in their own way. Colin Farrell is the standout performance here as McBurney, playing him as an Irish mercenary who crossed the sea from Dublin and signed up to fight with the Union for money, not out of loyalty or cause. While he begins as a charming, handsome, vulnerable hero injured on the battlefield who puts himself at the mercy of Miss Martha’s charity, he nicely and steadily begins to creep ambiguity and a calculated level of mercurial sleaze into his performance, before tipping over into outright pot-boiling anger and violence. Few could play this role with the restrained swagger Farrell exudes.
His effect on the women is old-fashioned and some might suggest quite anti-feminist, given their sexually charged reactions to his presence, but this is entirely the point and indicative of the age and situation they are in. Elle Fanning’s Alicia is the oldest student but clearly bored and engaging in a level of sexual fantasy, jealous of the attention McBurney gives even on the younger girls for whom his presence isn’t sexual but rather welcome as, in the case of Amy for instance, an older brother supplicant she likes and trusts. Even Angourie Rice’s Jane, who at first distrusts him as the enemy, warms to him as he appreciates her gift for music.
The most complex role goes to Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Morrow, Martha’s assistant, a teacher and a woman who seeks escape from a contained world, one of prayer and contemplation and strict rigidity; she wants a romantic escape, to run away with the sun on her back, and when McBurney shows her romantic affection she is swiftly entranced by the man. Dunst plays a role where she must balance restricted sexual desire and homely, earnest romantic intentions very well, in contrast to the slightly broader, stricter role Kidman brings – though even she is briefly tempted by this beguiling man.
Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the picture, because an hour in Coppola shifts gears after some very slow, steady world-building and character escalation, allowing you to relax in the warm malaise of the South and this claustrophobic world. McBurney makes a choice which turns the entire movie on a sixpence and shifts the sands under your feet as to quite who you ought to be rooting for in Coppola’s film. This goes back to the question at the beginning – just who is the titular beguiled? Who is the charmer and who is the charmed? The final third of the film will make you wonder if McBurney is as guilty of sin as he appears.
It’s less a conclusion that’s open to interpretation than it’s a conclusion where Coppola wants you to consider people’s actions, the choices they make—be they intentional or accidental—and their reactions to those choices. Edwina makes a crucial mistake, McBurney acts on sexual urges in a manner which suggests he may have troubling proclivities, and Martha takes an extreme reaction in an attempt to help the wounded soldier. Coppola’s film then turns from a character exploration of smoky temptation to taut thriller as relationships break down an even more extreme actions become necessary.
Or do they? That’s what Coppola wants to leave you wondering. The role of the beguiled shifts throughout The Beguiled, especially in its final stretch, and it’s worth experiencing that conclusion as cold as possible. It’s not revelatory not is it a twist in the Shyamalan-sense or anything along those lines but its a moral character point and turn which clouds the purity of who you may consider to be the charm and charmed, the victim or the perpetrator.
It remains a quiet, restrained, claustrophobic picture, shot with a light, loving lens while capturing a brooding quality, with some strong performances from Sofia Coppola’s careful, undulating script, but one which leaves a sting in its wake.