In The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle, received wisdoms are questioned at every turn. For a start, we’re clearly positioned on the women’s side, with their talk of ‘our boys’ at odds with the dastardly Union soldiers and the havoc they wreak (disrupting schooling, stealing chickens, killing brothers – the list is long). It’s easy to forget, while watching, that history is on the Unionists’ side: Colin Farrell’s Corporal McBurney is fighting to end slavery. Even if he is a mercenary, he’s doing the right thing.
But this is history Jane Austen-style: the politics and horrors of the outside world barely penetrate these school walls. Oh, their impact is felt and heard: there is shooting in the distance; the girls can’t go home; soldiers pass by the house or come in to search the place – but the focus is on the interior domestic world of women, ostracised by the fighting, trapped indoors, biding their time.
Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress; the school is her family home. She clings to a sense of tradition in the face of uncertainty, citing the lineage of everything, even her father’s desk and gun. There might be shells exploding on the horizon, but the gates are locked and the girls must learn their French declensions. Everything is very ordered and proper, and decorum is everything.
Into this world comes the injured Corporal McBurney, as charming and handsome as, well… Colin Farrell. He’s discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the younger pupils, on a rare and forbidden foray into the woods. She’s looking for mushrooms, but she finds the wounded and immobile soldier instead, and takes him to the school for her teachers to assess. “I couldn’t just leave him to die,” she says, seeking approval, clearly conflicted. Miss Martha agrees: “The enemy, viewed as an individual, is often not what we expect.” (The same can be said, of course, of these privileged women, whose ‘side’ is that of the oppressor, not the oppressed.) But the act of charity is doomed: the house is a hotbed of repressed sexuality, from Miss Martha’s uptight propriety to Alicia (Elle Fanning)’s burgeoning self-awareness, not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst)’s blushing neediness and the little girls’ barely understood desire for male attention. These are women without men in a patriarchal world: Corporal McBurney offers them the chance to relieve their frustrations. They vie for his affections, and begin to fall apart.
It’s a tense, exciting kind of film, in the same way as The Falling or Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s slow and sensual, forbidding and unsettling. The claustrophobia is palpable, and it’s clear that something must erupt from this seething undercurrent of repressed passion. The acting is superb, each character utterly and devastatingly believable. There’s a lovely ambiguity too: who’s really in the wrong? Does Miss Martha really have to take the drastic action she does (I can’t say more without revealing far too much), or is she acting to protect the girls and regain control? Is McBurney to blame for looking out for himself, for using what he’s got to keep himself safe? These are all flawed, credible people, acting and reacting to the cards they’ve been dealt, making mistakes and having to live with the results of them. It doesn’t pull many punches, and it’s really very good indeed. Sofia Coppola’s best director award at this year’s Cannes film festival is very well deserved – let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another fifty-six years before another woman gains this accolade.