From its opening image of morning sunlight filtering through trees draped in Spanish moss, Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature film The Beguiled aggressively establishes a mood of ethereal Southernness. An on-screen title places the setting in rural Virginia, one year before the end of the Civil War. A stately, cream-white plantation mansion with massive Ionic columns—the same Louisiana location used for parts of the shoot of Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade—stands near-deserted close by that moss-hung forest, where a little girl gathering wild mushrooms (Oona Laurence) happens upon a badly wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell).
Good Christian that she is, the child helps the man back to the near-abandoned plantation where a strict schoolmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), is attempting to run a proper boarding school for young ladies with the aid of the frustrated and restless teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). The eldest of the group, Alicia (Elle Fanning), is a boy-crazy teenager who flirts openly with the handsome man in their midst, who turns out to be a silver-tongued Irish mercenary named John McBurney. The other pupils, all preteens, hold a wide array of attitudes toward the injured intruder, from reflexive anti-Yankee suspicion to budding puppy love. As Miss Martha nurses the sick man back to health, keeping his presence a secret from the Confederate troops who regularly patrol the area, sexual tensions and sororal rivalries bring the already-tense hothouse atmosphere to a rolling boil.
The Beguiled is based on a 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel that was adapted into a 1971 film by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood in the role of the Union soldier. That movie had a slightly tawdry, Penthouse-letter quality, focusing on the Eastwood character’s status as captive stud. What drew Coppola to the property, she’s said in interviews, was the chance to explore the story from the female characters’ point of view—like her debut film The Virgin Suicides, this one takes place in a house full of isolated, sexually repressed young women—as well as the opportunity to explore what she has called a “very exotic … romantic and dark setting.”
But at least one important element of “darkness” has been excised from the story entirely. In both the book and Siegel’s adaptation, the wounded Union soldier was cared for primarily by an enslaved black woman (played in the 1971 film by Mae Mercer). In the novel, Edwina, the teacher character here played by Dunst, was a teenager of mixed race who hid the fact of her partially black ancestry from the rest of the household. Coppola’s script acknowledges and dismisses the existence of slavery in a single early line: “The slaves left,” the youngest girl informs the wounded man as she walks him back to the mansion. How long ago, we wonder, and under what circumstances? Where did they go? What has the adjustment process been like for these privileged young ladies who until recently had all their domestic chores performed for them by captives forced to provide free labor under the constant threat of violence?
Coppola has defended the omission of both characters of color by explaining that she was interested in exploring gender politics rather than racial ones—a claim seemingly designed to make intersectional activists everywhere smack their raced and gendered hands against their foreheads. There’s no need, of course, for every film set in the Civil War–era South to focus exclusively on the power dynamics between masters and enslaved people. But to eliminate this element from the story—to effectively run plantation life in 1864 through the bleach cycle—not only places The Beguiled in a space outside history; it drains the plot of much of its potential stakes.
The competition among the women for McBurney’s attention and approval provides tension and humor for the gauzily atmospheric, if slow-moving, first hour. (The Beguiled runs only 93 minutes, but those minutes pass with the stifling leisure of a July afternoon on a Georgia porch.) After a grisly plot twist threatens to throw the household into a state of atavism, the film enters an overfamiliar zone of Southern Gothic melodrama, all bloodstained lace nightgowns, falsely gay dinner parties, and fevered confessions of repressed desire.
The Beguiled is a triumph of lighting, cinematography, art direction, and costume design, shot on 35 mm film in natural light or candlelight, with the young girls in their faded 1860s gowns looking like so many pastel-wrapped bonbons. The cast, especially Kidman, Dunst, and Farrell, hits their notes of longing, suspicion, and revenge with precision, and even the Southern accents are consistent and understated rather than broad and campy. The whole production is elegant and tasteful to a fault, even when, in the second half, the revolvers and hacksaws come out.
Sofia Coppola won the best director prize at Cannes for The Beguiled, becoming only the second woman to do so in that festival’s history. From an aesthetic and technical perspective, her achievement is laudable, but there’s something underfurnished about this movie, a lack of historical, intellectual, and thematic richness. For all its elaborate design and carefully calibrated mood, it comes down to the tale of a randy fox in an impeccably preserved Greek Revival henhouse.