In the midst of the American Civil War, a young girl walks through the woods picking up mushrooms. Just outside the treeline, we can hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire. The war is just out of reach but the girl sings her song and picks up mushrooms until she finds a wounded soldier, a soldier from the north, who is the enemy, but the young girl helps bring him to an almost-empty school so he can get medical aid.
This is how “The Beguiled” begins and from there it’s a wild ride from writer and director Sofia Coppola. In the school are the owner, Martha, the headmistress, Edwina, and five young girls, including the kind Amy, who first brings the soldier to their school.
The lives of these women, young and old, has been almost routine and already disrupted by the Civil War and now the arrival of Corporal John McBurney sends their world upside down.
Coppola uses beautiful lighting to show the potential beauty that can be found in the school but it’s covered in shadows. This is a house that is dying. With the slaves and the other girls having left, the only ones that remain have nowhere to go and do what they can to survive.
The garden is wild and unkempt and the house is filled with dark corners and furniture, creating the feeling of claustrophobia. There are only seven women here but it feels like it’s going to explode and now that a man, a wounded soldier from the opposite side of the war, has arrived, everything starts to sizzle.
The pacing is a quiet build-up. Coppola is known for her meticulous use of music in her films but “The Beguiled” is eerily silent with only the sound of birdsong or the distant war faintly breaking the quiet.
The movie starts off light with everyone still being cordial and polite but changes are happening. The women, cut off from the world, have taken a liking to the stranger. All the women, from Martha, the eldest, to Amy, the youngest, have developed varying degrees of affection, and this is when the trouble starts.
Heightened emotions lead to jealousy and competition and what began as a charming tale of kindness in the time of war becomes a war zone of former colleagues turned rivals.
But there are more twists to come and before the film is through, the world of the school changes. War affects everyone, even those just outside the boundaries.
The production design and costumes are exquisite. The editing is surprising. The performances are superb. Nicole Kidman leads the cast with Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. Farrell is at his most charming, while the older women, Kidman and Dunst, are paragons of Civil War era repression.
There’s so much inside of them that’s waiting to come out. It’s incredible. The younger women, are all quite charming with Elle Fanning playing out the young woman blooming into her sexuality.
Strangely enough, this little dark tale of seven women and a man, trapped in a house together becomes a wonderful little reflection of a world at war. In a school where young girls learn how to be proper Southern women, they are all polite and courteous despite all that’s really bubbling underneath. Even to the wounded soldier of the opposite camp, whom they treat with kindness, courtesy, and respect despite everyone’s hidden motives.
The film becomes an allegory for the masks that we wear during times of war. And isn’t present-day America at war with itself? Aren’t we, in the Philippines today? Two countries divided by politics. “The Beguiled” becomes this mirror to the dangers of losing ourselves to our expectations and the appeal of something new that comes into our lives that brings out the best and worst of us.
“The Beguiled” is dark but there are also inflections of the whimsical and the fantastic. It’s gothic in mood and tone but it’s also a coming-of-age story. But, at its heart, it’s a war story. Coppola never makes us forget it with the sounds of explosions just in the distance, daring to puncture this idyllic scene.
Except the war zone is inside us and among us. “The Beguiled” is brilliantly subversive this way and that’s all due to Coppola’s masterful touch.