By Leslie C. Halpern
In Sofia Coppola’s new remake of the 1971 Don Siegel-directed version of The Beguiled starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, sexual tension builds to the breaking point at the Farnsworth Seminary, a nearly deserted boarding school for girls.
Set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, (though actually shot in and around a Louisiana mansion), the battle rages a few miles away from the school with booming cannons frequently heard in the background. One day while picking mushrooms, a student named Amy (Oona Laurence) finds a severely wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who crawled away from battle after receiving multiple gunshots in his leg.
A Handsome Mercenary
Amy brings him back to the school where only five students, the teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the director, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) remain. These students and two administrators have nowhere else to go, so they stay in the dilapidated school with overgrown gardens sitting on the edge of the nearby battlefield. McBurney is met with disapproval from Martha and one of the students, while the other girls seem delighted to have a masculine presence in the girls-only atmosphere.
They soon learn the wounded corporal is a mercenary soldier fresh off the boat from Ireland who accepted $300 to take the place of another man who didn’t want to go to war. With no stake in the outcome and no desire for heroism, McBurney deserted his post in an effort to find help for his injuries. The help he receives, however, is a mixed bag. There’s only Miss Martha to heal the gunshot wounds in his leg, give him a sensuous sponge bath, and prepare his meals. Brandy and unconsciousness are his only relief from pain…at first.
Manipulative Techniques Employed
After he shaves off the beard that hides his handsome face, McBurney attracts the attention of all the females at Farnsworth Seminary by combining his good looks with a seemingly earnest charm. The girls and women dress in their best clothes and wear their fanciest jewelry in hopes of catching his eye. Eventually his pain relief comes in the form of pleasure, when teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) and Edwina pay him special attention. Even Miss Martha is not immune to his sensuality. With the building sexual tension (which produces some unexpected comedy), increasing competition among the women, and manipulative techniques employed by all involved, a happy ending seems most improbable.
Coppola presents an artful film with lush scenery, special moments, tense scenes, and interesting characters. Although there’s not much backstory here, the claustrophobic nature of the locked music room where McBurney stays, the feminine pastels inside the mansion, and the iron gate in front of the house signal an in-the-moment story confined to one suffocating space.
Farrell balances calculated beguilement and caged beast, displaying whichever is needed to get McBurney’s needs met. Kidman is especially good as the seminary’s director with extreme emotions barely concealed behind an icy calm. Her duties to her students, her employee, her army, her government, and her patient often conflict with her own needs and desires. Part hero and part villain, Kidman portrays each side of her character equally well, and her cruel controlling scenes at the dining room table are among the most memorable.
The Beguiled (2017)
- A wounded Union soldier during the Civil War seeks refuge in a girls’ school in Virginia, which causes tensions among the young women.
- Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
- Director: Sofia Coppola
- Genre: Drama
- Run Time: 93 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for some sexuality)