The women and girls in The Beguiled are trapped, both by convention and by war.
Bustling round their decaying Virginia plantation house, weeds coming through the veranda, ivy snaking up the crumbling columns and dust showing on the skirting boards, the teachers and pupils of Martha Farnsworth’s school have nowhere to go, and no way of going should they be so inclined.
Despite the dangers of war, and men, all is brooding, repressed beauty as the ladies rustle about in their washed-out dresses. There’s a poverty-struck gentility to the production design and the cinematography with pale colours adding a sheen of faded grandeur to clothes and furnishings: cream, pale blue, white, pink and peach; cotton for day, and satin and lace for evening.
Even when their lives are disrupted, often nothing seems to happen on the surface. Cutaway scenes leave us hanging – something must be going on, they can’t always be cross stitching – but time passes. And when something does occur, it’s shockingly brutal yet soon firmly controlled.
Most of the pupils and all of the slaves have left (where they might have gone isn’t made clear), the war is outside their rusting gates and though the enemy is officially the Union Army, all men are a danger to them and all men know it.
But power is a funny thing and though Martha (a wonderfully steely Nicole Kidman) has a gun and knows how to use it, she hasn’t had to.
It’s 1864 and three years into the American Civil War. Young Amy (Oona Laurence) has strayed too far from the house picking mushrooms and comes across Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell – believably mercurial and sometimes desperate), an Irish soldier who, fresh off the boat from Dublin, thought he’d made a good deal taking another man’s place in the Union Army for $300, but is now rueing that decision as he lies bloodied under a tree.
Amy helps him back to the school, where there is much toing and froing as to whether they should just tie a blue cloth to the gates to indicate to the Confederate Army that they have a Yankee soldier for them to take away. Martha is the kind of tall, elegant woman backboned with a rod of steel, who in the right circumstances can turn her hand to anything, and while she decides she’s cleaning and stitching his leg wound.
Having a man in the house is frightening, exciting, but above all entertaining for a group of sequestered teens and tweens, after endless enervatingly humid days learning French verbs, or practising their tiny embroidery stitches.
So eventually Martha agrees that they can temporarily keep him, and keep him secret, though she continues to vassilate, perhaps deliberately, over what to do with him; a process which would keep the soldier on his toes were he able to stand up yet.
The school’s inhabitants treat John rather like an exotic pet, each of them making so many secret visits to his daybed they should be constantly tripping over each other. Bringing him prayer books, stealing jewellery to wear when they see him, and lucky Martha even gets to give him a bed bath which she completes in the very opposite of her usual brisk manner. This is most certainly a film made for the female gaze.
On the surface The Beguiled is languid, but beneath the calm Martha and John are engaged in their own war, one of attrition, as they constantly try to wrench control from one another. He’s a charming flirt and a chancer, happily moving his affections from woman to woman to get what he wants, expertly finding their weak spots so he can exploit their kindness, inquisitiveness, and sheer, hormonal loneliness.
Teacher Edwina (a brilliantly repressed Kirsten Dunst) he calls a “delicate beauty” though she is actually rather solid; and he tells little Amy, who found him, that she is his best friend. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is a teenage flirt, but with the older women competing for the soldier’s affections, there’s no one to help her navigate her burgeoning sensuality in the presence of such a man (and would they want to, as she throws her hat into the ring alongside theirs).
But Martha is a match for Corporal McBurney, and he knows it, complimenting her not, despite her beauty, on her looks, but on her bluntness which he claims to admire. And she is hugely experienced in keeping restless girls and women in line.
Dinner, when they dress up and John is invited to their table as a guest, is where little is said but much happens. Martha’s putdowns to Edwina about her off-the-shoulder evening dress result in that ultimate admission of defeat, the adding of a shawl. And their arguing over who should be credited for an apple pie that John finds so delicious – baker, recipe owner, or fruit picker? – is bitter perfection.
John’s allowed to stay for a while, though it becomes obvious he’s a coward who will do anything to avoid going back to war. Once back on his wobbly feet he makes himself useful: “your whole flower garden needs tending, I’ll get to it tomorrow!” he tells Martha in probably the most innuendo-laden line in the whole film. The garden green and off-white as the house decays, soon boasts flash of bright pink or red whenJohn begins to restore the flower beds.
But the soldier’s ungentlemanly behaviour causes everyone to overreach themselves, and longing glances and flirty games descend into flailing disaster.
I haven’t seen the original film version, and I know there have been questions asked about Coppola’s removal of the character of Hallie, a Black slave, so she could concentrate on issues of sex rather than race. Removing the stories of Black women to concentrate on those of white women though, especially in an area – and an era – where slavery is always part of the story, is not the right way to go.
In this gothic tale who is a prisoner and who a guard changes regularly. There are moments when the story threatens to turn into a corseted version of Misery. Waking from chloroform-induced unconsciousness, impotently raging, screaming like a caged animal, John is still not as frightening as Martha’s earlier steady instructions, as he lay horribly injured yet again, to “get me the anatomy book” and various surgical-like instruments before practicing her tiny stitching on him once more.
And that is only the start. Because while women are too often victims of war it can also give them a taste of freedom.
Watch the teaser trailer for The Beguiled: