The Beguiled (2017) film review

This criticism is intended to develop the conversation about the film for those who have already seen it, or for those indifferent to being spoiled on a film before seeing it… so consider yourself warned: there are spoilers throughout.

Director Sofia Coppola’s take on this Southern-set American Civil War story is reserved, observant, and human. The Beguiled, Coppola’s seventh film (not discounting her Netflix film A Very Murray Christmas) is a character study; her lens is anthropological. In the third year of the Civil War, a young girl out gathering mushrooms discovers a Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), lying in the forest. Gravely injured and behind enemy lines, he’s rescued by the girl, who takes him to her home, an all-girls academy led by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). How this scenario plays out, as the women interact with McBurney, is like a fable, of a fox let loose in a henhouse. Under the director’s fair and studied gaze, however, what could be cliché is grounded in a human dimension — the sense of inevitability is at turns dryly humorous but mostly tragic.

Confronted by this uninvited guest, the women are forced to reckon with the sanctity of their space. Her students’ safety being her highest priority, Farnsworth locks McBurney in the parlor. He’ll convalesce in private, attended by her instructor, Edwina, and the headmistress herself; once he’s recovered, he’ll leave. This is a reasonable strategy, but the calamity has already been set in motion. The long-term seclusion of this group of women has left them at a disadvantage. The locked parlor door may keep McBurney from leaving his room, but the students readily ignore Farnsworth’s prohibitions, all too curious about their maimed visitor. As they get to know McBurney, who seems at first to be a decent, grateful soldier, they begin to foster expectations of him, as a friend, companion, and romantic partner, and he plays into it, both from genuine interest and desperation. The stage is set.

What plays out is a portrait of characters in internal turmoil — each forced to reckon with their needs and desires. Yet nothing is played as melodrama, and every character lies within a spectrum of realistic temperaments. For each woman, McBurney’s presence poses a challenge: given the broader circumstances of the war, as well as their personal and collective need for security, how do they address their individual wants; what priority is given to the uncertain and dangerous matters of the heart?

Take Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst. Edwina is an older resident at Farnsworth’s school, occupying an uncomfortable space between teacher and subordinate. There’s no vanity in Dunst’s performance, and she allows her maturing features to speak for her — Edwina is burdened by the fear that as the war continues, she’s become unmarriageable. That McBurney expresses affection for her, and promises to run away with her, spurs a sense of self-confidence and entitlement that she had long buried. Edwina’s feelings, while valid, are also predictably complicated by the circumstances and McBurney’s own wretched state. To her credit, she is aware that McBurney’s promises may also be an illusion. But perhaps an illusion is just enough to keep her hope alive?

While McBurney may fit the part of a “snake in the grass” in broad strokes, I don’t think this characterization does him justice. As written and directed by Coppola, and performed by Colin Farrell, he’s simply human. Neither a coward, nor a hero. Can he, an injured soldier, really be faulted for getting lost inside the relative decadence of the women’s home? Like the women, he’s caught within his own particular circumstances, attempting to survive.

Consider McBurney’s desperate situation: he’s an Irishman who was paid to take a Northerner’s place in a war he’s not ideologically invested in. This is a man who had resigned himself to death long before he had been injured. Under the care of these women — possibly the most graceful, educated, and attractive that he’s ever shared a meal with — he sees an opportunity for not only survival but also reinvention. However, it’s his tenuous status at the school that ultimately upends the women's lives and ends his own. As Farnsworth has told him, the moment he’s fully recovered, he must leave. Thus, every choice McBurney makes is informed by the knowledge that he will inevitably be forced to return to war or face execution in a prison camp. His desperate circumstances, weighed by Coppola’s even-handed gaze, render the choices he makes intelligible while still unmistakably vile. That he seeks to make his place in this home permanent, by encouraging the affection of these women, seems like the only course of action available to him.

The unstated tragedy of the film is that Farnsworth’s professed Christian charity has clear limits, boundaries set forth to preserve her school and its wards. Unable to come to an arrangement concerning McBurney’s status, McBurney is left unmoored, and he acts out in despair. On his final night, he seduces a younger student — overlooking Edwina or Farnsworth. Either this is a tactical error on his part, as seducing the young student could only hasten his departure, or he seduces with the intent of causing the most harm, embittered by Farnsworth’s inflexibility. That said, McBurney could’ve slept with any one of the women, but any choice would’ve produced the same results. Had he chosen Farnsworth or Edwina rather than the young student, surely one of the other women would’ve still pushed him away in anger, leading to his fall down the stairs.

After his re-injured leg is amputated, McBurney screeches that Farnsworth cut it off in vengeance for sleeping with someone besides her. It’s in this moment that he illustrates his misapprehension of his situation. This home, and these women, are *not* “for him” — as the women tell him more than once, he’s not even really a guest. And despite what he may think, during his time in their home, McBurney had never once made himself truly useful… the rose garden had been abandoned because there was no pragmatic reason to care for it — his efforts at resuscitating it were nothing but a waste of energy. If anything, his physical exertions seemed to only risk undoing the good work Farnsworth had done to mend him. As McBurney, shocked by the amputation, unravels into violent mania, the extent of his burden on the women’s home is made shockingly obvious.

McBurney’s critical mistake is that he is unaware of the delicacy of his position. Each woman in the home is shown to have a role in maintaining its stability; every day they’re harvesting food, mending their clothes, cooking meals, and caring for him. These are things that McBurney has taken for granted — and it’s here where Coppola reveals her feminism. Like many men, McBurney feels entitled to the effort of the women in his life, and is not aware that everything that he enjoys, from which he draws his strength, is due to their sacrifices. It’s this lack of care for this balance that is ultimately his undoing. This all-girls school may outwardly appear to be a paradise, sustained on nothing but sheer femininity, but it’s actually a tightly regulated ecology — power is held by Farnsworth at the top and enforced by Edwina and their students. Every student has a role and is valued within this system of delegation and obedience, knowing that their quality of life depends on it. McBurney, useless and increasingly loathsome, has begun to disrupt this precious order.

Some viewers may be perplexed by the at-times reticent point of view of Coppola’s film, but the director’s motivation is sound. Rather than feeding into her characters’ confusion of emotions, and delivering on the audience’s expectation of melodrama, she’s clarifying the situation instead. In The Beguiled, Coppola operates on an almost infrared wavelength of storytelling — lighting upon universal truths regarding systems of power, and avoiding the stereotypes that regularly obscure the issues at the heart of ‘battles of the sexes’ stories.

Where McBurney’s company initially provided a refreshing counterbalance to the women’s isolation, his descent into unvarnished, violent neediness corrupts the hospitality that once saved him, and threatens the society that Farnsworth and her women have managed to cultivate. McBurney’s continued presence at their home promises only a future of misery and forced servitude. And for that, the soldier is poisoned to death, and rightfully so. In wartime, tending to rosebushes is foolish.