It's three years into the Civil War, and the girls at Farnsworth Seminary are growing bored and restless. The monotony is broken when one of the girls comes upon a wounded Union soldier and brings him back with her to the plantation. Now the headmistress has to decide between patriotism and Christian charity: Should they immediately turn him over to Confederate soldiers or let him stay until his wounds are healed? Having decided on the latter, is the soldier their prisoner, guest or some murky, erotic in-between?
The Beguiled comes to us from writer and director Sofia Coppola, adapted from Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel. The film won her a best directing award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the first for a woman in 50 years. And women are certainly running the show at Farnsworth. Nicole Kidman stars as Miss Martha, the headmistress who's calculating but not without heart. Kidman brings to the table a kaleidoscope of subtle emotions, per her usual. Colin Farrell plays the Union soldier, and they've let him keep his accent—he's a mercenary fresh off the boat from Ireland. Besides that, the school has five teen and pre-teen students. I relate most to the girls' sadly unmarried schoolteacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst. To her, the school has become an insufferable prison. If it were me, and I were trapped with a bunch of ladies deep in the Virginia woods for years on end, I'm certain that I would feel the same way about it.
At its heart, The Beguiled is a story about the explosive and terrible potential of sexuality that burns deep inside the hearts of women. And what better time and place to explore that fire than during an era of high necklines and religious sincerity, in a secluded house built by slaves, lit only by candlelight? The girls' nightly prayers feel particularly ominous: They're praying to a God that most definitely probably exists, and of course He's on the South's side... or is He?
Watching this film I couldn't help thinking of reality television's The Bachelor, a show in which dozens of women compete for a single man's affection. Every week, more women are eliminated until there's just one man and woman left standing, who presumably ride off together on a proverbial white horse. So much of the fun comes from the fact that each contestant has her own perception of where she stands with the Bachelor. Rachel finds real meaning in her relationship with Nick—and so do Raven, Vanessa and Corinne. In The Beguiled, Corporal McBurney forges alliances with each of the girls, and from our bird's eye view, it's clear that someone's going to get hurt.
Finally, I'm forced to mention that there exists as well a 1971 film, directed by Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood as the soldier. Coppola's tried to distance herself from this take and I think I know why: In some ways, Siegel's movie feels outdated and melodramatic, but it's got more guts. The old version doesn't shy away from slavery, it's more salacious, and its violence doesn't hide in ambiguity. I liked the older version so much that I almost wish I hadn't seen it first—but films can't be unseen. Coppola updates the story with a haunting, claustrophobic tone that really works, but comparatively, her version feels disappointingly safe. I still recommend 2017's The Beguiled, but I'll add some homework. See Coppola's version, then go and watch Siegel's. Mash the two together in your brain and you've got yourself a perfect adaptation.
The Beguiled opens at the Roxy Fri., July 7.