A young girl with plaits down her back sings and skips through the woods. She’s gathering mushrooms in her wicker basket, rays of golden light streaming through the trees. All of a sudden, a strange noise breaks the solitary idyll; creeping cautiously through the bracken, she’s shocked to discover a wounded soldier, lying in agony beneath a tree. As she helps him up and leads him to safety, the whimsical overtones of the Red Riding Hood tale subtly foreshadow the menace of what’s to come.
It’s 1864, three years into the Civil War, and young Amy (Oona Laurence) has inadvertently saved the life of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary who has been fighting on the Union side. Amy is a pupil — one of five — at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a southern Virginia finishing school located in a serene mansion set back from the woods and secured firmly by high gates. After a brief conference — all meaningful glances and reluctant mutterings about Christian charity — Miss Martha, the matriarch herself (Nicole Kidman), decides that McBurney can stay, locked safely away in the music room. In a grim and lengthy scene, she pulls shrapnel from his mangled leg and — averting her eyes — stitches up his bloody wound, employing the very needles she was earlier using to teach the young ladies embroidery.
The film, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel and a reinterpretation of the 1971 film version starring Clint Eastwood, earned Sofia Coppola the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival in May. Coppola’s take on the drama is stylised and sensual, turning the melodrama of Don Siegel’s psychological thriller into a quieter take, drawing out the women’s perspectives.
Miss Martha and her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) preside over mechanical lessons where the pupils, whose ages range from around 12 to 18, learn the rudiments of French grammar and embroidery, and gather round placidly in the evenings for prayers and music.
The arrival of McBurney in their midst introduces a new, alien dimension to secluded seminary life. Each of the women is thrust into a relation of sudden intimacy with this vulnerable stranger — from innocent Amy letting him lean on her shoulder as they hobble through the woods, to the timid Edwina tenderly sponging his body, in a scene infused with embarrassment and eroticism. But the claustrophobia of the house soon leads to turmoil, as the women begin to compete increasingly viciously for the affable McBurney’s attention, each projecting onto him a vision of the possibilities the seminary denies them, from friendship, to romantic companionship, to sexual gratification.
At first this rivalry is light-hearted and humorous; an awkward dinner scene where each of the girls has dressed up extravagantly in ball gowns, to McBurney’s mild alarm, is hilarious. But as his romance with shy Edwina appears to burgeon, side-glances from the eldest pupil, Elle Fanning’s spikily seductive Alicia, indicate that trouble is afoot.
Despite the political backdrop, the action takes place in a strange bubble: beyond the occasional cannon shot or twist of smoke on the horizon, or a battalion of Confederate troops stopping by for a rare hot meal, the war seems remote from life in the cloistered seminary. Coppola has chosen to forgo the book’s slave character, throwing the genteel household and the rough and ready McBurney into starker opposition along class lines; she’s not interested in interrogating the inequalities of the American South, but the mindset of trapped women (a theme across much of her work, from The Virgin Suicides to Marie Antoinette).
For a film with a small cast played out in a limited landscape, encompassing only a few rooms and the garden, Coppola’s vision is immensely watchable. Light dapples over the verdant grasses; the women are constantly arranged in enticing tableaux, performing for McBurney, all lace and elegant braids and pastel skirts and shy yet knowing smiles. What makes the film so psychologically engaging is the way the power dynamic within the house constantly shifts: while the younger girls, in awe of McBurney’s charms and tales of the world outside, are eager for him to stay, Martha is more aware of the power they hold over him, dangling over him the possibility that they will denounce him to the authorities as a deserter, ensuring he never forgets the gratitude he should owe them, and the thin ice on which their cordial relations rest.
The unravelling of the situation, as harmony rapidly shatters into gothic horror, throws the first part into sharp relief; a swift-moving series of thrilling twists ensues, until an uncomfortable resolution — and one whose neatness perhaps does not do justice to the film’s complex themes — is reached. Stylish and dark, The Beguiled shows that no one is to be trusted — especially when they have access to an axe, a gun, and a wood full of poisonous mushrooms.
Words by Francesca Wade. Photo courtesy of Ben Rothstein / Focus Features - © 2017 Focus Features LLC.