The world of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, as with so many of her films, is gorgeous but stifling. Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, a boarding school in rural Mississippi, is a manse with expansive grounds, but it feels hermetically sealed. Though closed off from the encroaching chaos of the Civil War, the institution is decaying as a result of most of its students fleeing. Coppola’s film is the second adaptation of a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan about what happens when the school takes in a handsome, wounded Union soldier, after Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name. That film is a sweaty, undeniably sexist tale of women run amok; Coppola, unsurprisingly, has a more careful, considered take on the gender dynamics at play.
If I have a complaint, it’s that Coppola’s film could afford to be a little steamier. That’s been my chief criticism of her oeuvre since she burst onto the scene with The Virgin Suicides in 1999; there’s an ambient gauziness she just can’t shake, no matter how lurid her subject matter. From the partying aristocrats of Marie Antoinette to the thieving teens of The Bling Ring, Coppola has struggled to instill any sense of chaos into her storytelling, and The Beguiled is no different, even given the sexy powder-keg narrative it’s adapting. What she captures perfectly, however, is the chess-like power struggle behind the genteel conversations and innocent flirtations. In Siegel’s movie, the Union soldier (played by Clint Eastwood) was undoubtedly the hero and audience surrogate. For Coppola (who has wisely cast Colin Farrell), the same cannot be said.
Still, the setup and plotting of the two films are largely similar. John McBurney (Farrell), wounded from a nearby battle, stumbles onto the Farnsworth Seminary’s grounds and is rescued by one of its youngest students. He’s taken up to the house, where the assembled women (including teacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, and student Alicia, played by Elle Fanning) fret that the soldier will ravage them the first chance he gets. But Martha (a steely, poised Nicole Kidman) rules that the Christian thing to do is to help him convalesce before turning him over to the Confederate troops, and thus he is admitted to the house.
As John, Farrell is having the time of his life, getting to play off both the movie-star charisma that launched him into Hollywood, and his more aggressive, frightening side that has made him such an underrated character actor for the last decade. Once he’s inside the school, John begins insinuating himself into everyone’s good graces, playing the courteous gentleman for the younger students, the alluring bad boy for Alicia, and the tortured soul for Edwina and Martha, reflecting on his sins as a soldier and offering to help maintain the dilapidated school in exchange for shelter.
Coppola, who has made multiple terrible missteps when it comes to portraying non-white characters, has been criticized for excising The Beguiled’s slave characters (they are explained to have deserted the school), particularly the character of Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film). Hallie is, however, an incredibly outdated and stereotypical character in the source material and Siegel’s film; Coppola was probably wise to “stay in her lane,” as it were, and concentrate on the primary theme of the film, which is John’s slow transformation from object of affection to threat. But her narrow focus certainly contributes to the film’s overall remove—Coppola’s mannered, dreamlike atmosphere feels as calculated as ever.
Still, Coppola remains one of the most exciting aesthetic directors working in Hollywood today. Each frame of The Beguiled is a wonder to look at, from the candle-lit dinner-time conferences (at which the women of the school quietly debate John’s fate) to the angelic portraits of John, who’s frequently bathed in heavenly light for the film’s first two acts. Farrell is at peak heart-throb status, with just a hint of menace at first that gradually begins to grow. Kidman, the real star of the film, initially comes off like a typically buttoned-up schoolmarm. But Coppola’s real delight is in letting her show her teeth, while never abandoning her calm, as Martha’s struggle of wills with John reaches a fever pitch.
The Beguiled probably wouldn’t work if it didn’t nail the ending—at a taut 94 minutes, every scene exists to turn the screw just a little bit tighter before a grand final showdown. Coppola’s tendency to repress the novel’s more manic qualities may seem overly cautious, but eventually I realized the kind of story she wanted to tell—one of women using the limited tools given to them in this genteel age as precise weapons, a canny reversal of Siegel’s (lovably) retrograde hot-house environment. The crucial shot of The Beguiled comes in one of its last scenes: It’s Kidman sitting at the dinner table keeping her polite veneer intact. It’s the film’s biggest laugh-line, its moment of triumph, and its most effective plot twist, all wrapped up in one. I’ll spoil no further, but simply say that it’s worth seeing the film just for the poise of its conclusion.