It would appear as if the Union soldier Cpl. John McBurney has caught a lucky break, so to speak.
Slouched against a tree in the thick Virginia woods not far from where the Civil War wages on, bleeding out from a gunshot wound to his left leg beneath the knee, McBurney would seem to be a goner.
Until an 11-year-old girl named Amy happens upon McBurney while picking mushrooms, helps the wounded soldier to his feet and brings him to her place of residence: the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies.
So begins Sofia Coppola’s beautifully filmed, precisely staged, languorous and haunting “The Beguiled,” a wartime period piece focusing very little on the battle at hand while delving deep into psycho-sexual issues and what happens when a dashing and perhaps dangerous male stranger enters the lives of females of varying ages and varying levels of repression and/or desire.
Colin Farrell delivers one of his finest and most richly layered performances as Cpl. McBurney, or simply “John” as he asks the ladies to call him, a recent immigrant from Ireland who says he arrived in New York with no money and no prospects — so he accepted $300 to take another man’s place fighting for the North.
“Any men about?” the wounded John asks upon his arrival at the gated mansion — aka plantation — and judging by the looks on the faces of his hosts, the answer is an emphatic “no.” No, there haven’t been any men around there for quite a while.
Nicole Kidman is the stern headmistress, Miss Martha. Sofia Coppola favorite Kirsten Dunst plays the teacher Edwina. There are but five students left in the school, all of them presumably orphaned by the war and with nowhere else to go. There’s Oona Laurence’s Amy (the one who found John) and three other girls roughly her age, and the teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning), who can barely mask her excitement over the arrival of the handsome and charming man confined to a bed behind a locked door in the music room.
Miss Martha plucks the lead from John’s leg in matter-of-fact fashion and stitches him up with the efficiency of an expert in needlepoint — but when it comes time for Miss Martha to give the unconscious soldier a sponge bath, she can barely draw a breath, and she has to take multiple breaks to regain her composure.
Little wonder that when Confederate soldiers pass by the gates of the school and make inquiries about the women’s safety, Miss Martha sends them on their way without saying a word about the enemy soldier convalescing in a house filled with females. (It just wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do, says Miss Martha, and Edwina and the girls readily agree with this rationalization.)
Farrell masterfully switches gears as John employs different tactics to insinuate himself with each of the women and girls. He’s deferential and respectful when he’s with the skeptical Miss Martha. He flatters Miss Edwina and plays to her insecurities. He does little to discourage the brazen advances from the teenage Alicia. And he’s like the most wonderful uncle ever when bonding with the younger girls.
As the sexual tensions escalate and rivalries are established (even the little ones compete for John’s attention) and John’s wound heals to the point where he’s helping out in the garden, it becomes clear John would be more than content to stay at the school for the duration of the war and beyond. (It’s not like he’s some war hero itching to get back into the fray and fight for the North. Not only is he essentially a mercenary, but he DID run away after he was wounded.)
Coppola (and the cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd) film “The Beguiled” in gauzy, vaguely dreamlike tones. Shards of sunlight shoot through the thickets of trees and bushes. We see plumes of smoke in the distance and hear the sounds of cannon fire, but the gated school/house is a world unto itself, where the girls frolic and dance and giggle, and the women start dressing up and putting on jewelry for candlelit dinners at which John sits at the head of the table, enjoying lavish meals, drinking red wine and brandy, complimenting each and all for their contributions to his comfort and pleasure.
Of course, something’s gotta give, and when it does, “The Beguiled” reminds us we haven’t been watching a fairy tale all this time — we’ve been watching a very fractured fairy tale.
This is a remake of a 1971 film (based on a lurid Southern Gothic novel by Thomas P. Cullinan) directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. Coppola has actually toned down the content and the style considerably, most notably omitting a slave character (a choice that has drawn criticism from some quarters) and a backstory about one character’s incestuous relationship with her brother.
The 1971 version of “The Beguiled” was blunt and overheated and a little bit nuts. The 2017 edition is more sophisticated and nuanced — but it’s still a little bit nuts.
Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Grimes Griceand. Rated R (for some sexuality). Running time: 94 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.