The Beguiled


I had never heard of The Beguiled (book or Clint Eastwood film) before walking into the theater to see Sofia Coppola's take on the story. I'm so glad that I hadn't. I was completely enthralled by this film and had no idea what would happen until the very end.

The Beguiled takes place in Virginia during the Civil War. A group of women who have nowhere else to go have remained behind at an all girl's school on the outskirts of the battlefield. The story begins when one of the youngest students, Amy, stumbles across an injured Yankee deserter (Corporal McBurney) in the woods and decides to bring him back to the school for medical treatment. The headmistress, Miss Martha, is initially opposed to housing him but the case for Christian charity is made and she can't refuse. As the ladies nurse him back to health he slowly gains each of their trust and the women begin to let their guards down.

McBurney begins to see himself like a wolf in a hen house - he's excited to take every opportunity to exploit his situation. But he doesn't count on the separate motives each woman has for interacting with him. For Amy, she sees a fellow nature lover and friend. For the other young girls, he is an exciting curiosity to giggle about amongst themselves. For Alicia in her inexperience, he is a sexual partner she hopes to seduce. For Edwina, he's a potential love and way out of the life she's tired of living. For Miss Martha, he's a reminder of something she's lost and longs for.

Things take a dramatic turn, however, when Edwina catches McBurney in Alicia's bed and attacks him, causing him to fall down the stairs and break his newly-healed leg. The injury is too grievous for Miss Martha to fix and they end up amputating his leg. McBurney flies into a rage upon waking up and discovering his missing leg and takes the household hostage with a stolen gun. The ladies are forced to take drastic measures to rid themselves of their now unwelcome houseguest...

Sidenote: I know there has been some controversy around this film regarding the whitewashing of the original material. As I hadn't seen or read the original, I didn't notice this as acutely. The women seemed isolated and while the setting is during the civil war, the narrative almost seems to take place out of time. That being said, I think it might be time for Coppola to venture out of her "group of white women" comfort zone.

The atmosphere of this film is magical. Time seems to stop amongst the moss and lazy summer days, punctuated intermittently by explosions from the far off battlefield. The war feels far away from the daily lessons and sewing of the school until McBurney comes and brings a different kind of war to their doorstep. Coppola is a master of this heavy atmospheric tension in films and she uses the sparse score to heighten this deep unease. The acting is skillful - Collin Farrel reprises his eternal role as the guy you love to hate, Elle Fanning threatens to steal every scene she's in, Nicole Kidman is masterfully restrained. The costuming, sets, and cinematography are delicate and feminine, then turn to something more sinister as the plot progresses. Every aspect of this film carries the story along to its final conclusion with an impressive effortlessness.

I was enraptured by this film from the beginning and think that Sofia Coppola's directorial skills are only getting better with each film she creates. She is able to create complex female characters who can do bad things but are still deserving of empathy - a skill most directors in Hollywood don't seem to possess. The Beguiled is haunting, emotional, and a movie well worth seeing.

(photo sources: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 )

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