Movie Review: The Beguiled

A Union soldier finds himself at the mercy of a Southern school for girls

The Beguiled (Oklamaný)
Directed by Sofia Coppola
With Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence

Not all war films take place on the battlefield. An isolated school for girls in the South during the American Civil War is the backdrop to The Beguiled, and a very different type of conflict takes place.

The film previewed at the recent Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Horizons section before coming to local screens. Earlier, it competed at the Cannes film festival, and director Sofia Coppola won for Best Director. She was the second woman to ever win that prize. (The first was Yuliya Solntseva in 1961 for The Chronicle of Flaming Years.)

A handsome wounded soldier, Corporal John McBurney (played by Colin Farrell), is found by young woman, Amy (Oona Laurence) out picking mushrooms. She brings him back to a mansion that is serving as a school, with seven women and teenaged girls who have been isolated for most of the duration of the war.

Normally, the women turn Yankee drifters and deserters over to Confederate patrols. But in this case, they keep making excuses to delay that. At first they say it would be the Christian thing to nurse him back to health first, and then they come up with further excuses.

The headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) forbids the students from talking to the soldier, but each sneaks in to talk to him. McBurney knows his only chance for survival is to charm them into not eventually turning him over the enemy, so he does his best. He points out that he didn't really want to join the army but had little choice. Actually he is a recent immigrant from Ireland and the issues behind the war are no concern of his.

In no time, all of the women and girls are dressing up in their best and trying to be noticed. A rivalry develops among them and long unfulfilled passions rise to the surface. But the film is not a simple romance. There are some dark psychological themes at play as well, and several unexpected turns.

Some of the students at the school are barely in their teens, but McBurney has to be careful not to offend any of them by either rejecting their tentative advances or seeming to play favorites. It is a very fine line to navigate.

Director Sofia Coppola is back in familiar territory. Her feature debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), also had an ensemble cast of trapped women longing for outside contact. In both films, she connects with the emotional side of the story. She also dealt with a predominantly female cast in The Bling Ring, a 2013 satire about a group that stole designer goods from celebrities.

The Beguiled was filmed once before, in 1971 by director Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood. The pair worked together often, and their next film was the police drama Dirty Harry. This earlier version has a bit of a different focus, highlighting the jealousy and missing out a bit on the passion. The film was not a success at the box office, but has its share of fans.

As headmistress in the new version, Nicole Kidman is in her stern mode, and at first the most aloof of the women at the school. She sees discipline as the only way the women will survive the war. Kirsten Dunst gives a rather reserved performance, as a shy teacher who sees spinsterhood on the horizon if she doesn't find someone soon.

Among the students, Elle Fanning stands out among the ensemble cast as the one making the most effort to catch the injured soldier's eye. Oona Laurence also breaks out from the rest as the one who finds the injured soldier and who sees that as a reason for a special bond with him.

Colin Farrell as the injured soldier does most of his acting from bed. In a bit of role reversal, he is the one who objectified as a passive love interest, which is often how women in film are depicted.

The drama moves rather slowly, with the action restricted to the mansion and the surrounding fields. Some soldiers are seen passing on the road by the gate, but the Civil War seems to be some almost imaginary thing that is magically kept out of the mansion house by a locked gate.

The deliberate pacing may be a bit slow for some people, but the emphasis is on the interplay of the ensemble cast rather than on action or the resolution of the plot. There are some surprises though.

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