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 Hallie is, however, an incredibly outdated and stereotypical character in the source material and Siegel’s film; Coppola was probably wise to “stay in her lane,” as it were, and concentrate on the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.