The Beguiled 💘 Film Review

Written by Thelonia

The Beguiled began life as a novel (originally titled A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan), was adapted into a film in 1971 (starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page), and has now been brought back to the cinema by Sofia Coppola, who works the film into aesthetic beauty with a tense narrative, but who also falls prey to many of her cultural blind spots.

It's 1863 in rural Mississippi. A young girl walking through the woods in search of mushrooms finds a wounded Union soldier and takes him back to the School for Girls where she lives. As soon as he arrives, the women and girls who have stayed at the School even though the war rages close by debate what to do with him, eventually postponing their handing him over to Confederate troops in order for his injuries to heal. This postponing extends itself as the soldier ingratiates himself among the women, flattering and seducing his way through the school like his life depends on it (which it does, a bit). Unfortunately for him, his attentions soon lead to infighting, and he finds himself in a tricky situation.

First thing to mention is, despite the soldier (named 'John McBurney') being the center of the action (literally and figuratively), he is not the point of view character by a long shot. The camera, in Coppola's revisiting of the tale, sticks more to the book in perspective, and keeps the viewer with the female characters, never really revealing what's going on with the sole male figure.

The women are themselves very divided in opinions throughout the film, despite giving off outward appearances of unity and proper-ness. From Nicole Kidman's school matron Martha Farnsworth, Kirsten Dunst's schoolteacher Edwina Morrow, and the students, spearheaded by Elle Fanning's Alicia, with the rest of the cast rounded out by sometimes indistinguishable little girls with tight braids).

There is a fair amount of lingering on Farrell's body - and almost none in regards to the female characters (rather, the emphasis there is on their clothing and how it changes throughout the movie), but it isn't really the romance novel cover-shirt open to the waist (but tucked into the belt)-while chopping wood I was promised. This might have more to do with the fact that his character exposes himself very early on to be a conniving dickbag.

I spent a good part of this movie yelling "Get away from her you bitch" ala Ripley.

There were gasps in the theater when he told Dunst's Edwina he was in love with her - they had only spoken a few times up till then, and we'd seen him flirt with both Martha and Alicia by that point (not to mention his attentions to the younger girls - which never got suspect, but were noticeable in his own use of manipulation). Indeed, though we are outsiders to Farrell for most of the film, his motivations soon become clear: to survive this war as well he can.

A nice change from the book and the 1971 film is that McBurney here is an Irish emigré who has been paid to take someone else's place in the war. Not only does this allow Farrell to keep his natural accent, it also becomes a part of the plot: one of the early reasons the girls give for trusting him is that he is a mercenary, and so does not pose a real threat to the Confederacy (after all, he was just paid to fight, they don't know if he believes in the cause).

Tensions build slowly but steadily as Farrell charms his way through the school, culminating in a pretty gut-wrenching scene which, I'm not going to spoil, involves a hell of a last line ("fetch the anatomy book" indeed). The rest after that gives the impression of watching a car slowly driving off a cliff. It's not going to end well, but you're not exactly sure how big of an explosion you'll get.

The film is aesthetically very pleasing, with a beautiful landscape full of hanging moss and overgrown rose bushes. The house itself is similarly beautiful, if in an old and repressive way. The outfits it feels like are almost their own stars here - fashion, like in Coppola's previous piece, Marie Antoinette, reigns. But if this beauty is undercut by social machinations and infighting, there is something uglier that doesn't get brought up.

It was a bit of a cheat move on Coppola's part to write out race as a whole in the film. Coppola, when asked by Buzzfeed why she cut out the novel and earlier film's black characters, answered "“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them." This answer may hint that she thought that simply not mentioning Black people and slavery would avoid all issues brought up by race, which she did not feel equipped to handle, but by virtue of her setting, she is already involved in the issues of race, gender, and how they intersect.

While the cast is all white in this adaptation thanks to a convenient abandonment by all people of color from the area ("The Slaves left" says the little girl who finds Farrell in the woods when she finds him). In the original novel and 1971 film, there is a character named Hallie who is a slave, and not only does her presence complicate matters of race, gender, and power, direct parallels are drawn between her and McBurney (though these are mostly done by him in an attempt to gain her trust - and she doesn't see through it for a second - really the only character to do so).

One cannot help but to wonder that for all the pitfalls Coppola feared she would fall into, the film would simply be a stronger one with more dimensionality to it if she hadn't cut this part (or if she had stuck to the book and made the student character Edwina is partly based on biracial, as she was written). If she truly feared speaking out of turn, she could have included a co-writer who could have helped.

Issues surrounding white-washing of the film were not helped by the fact that the house they shot in was made famous last year by a very different film - Beyoncé's Lemonade, which turned around the historical narrative by having these powerful black women about a house built by the oppression of slaves. Not that the use of the house is in itself a stepping back, but the some of the cast's direct visual parallels to Lemonade over social media did feel both on the nose and almost intentionally regressive.

A post shared by Elle Fanning (@ellefanning) on

One needs to only give a cursory glance to the comments to find out how people felt about that.

A soft thriller about gender politics in a house in the midst of the Civil War, The Beguiled is an interesting look at ways in which people can be dicks to each other all while maintaining the illusion of civility, though efforts to avoid bringing race into the equation ultimately harm the film by reading femininity as white womanhood.

The Beguiled is currently in theaters.

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