Passions unleashed in Civil War Virginia
Gorgeous photography and strong performances make Sofia Coppola’s gothic melodrama The Beguiled linger in the memory, though the sultry, drowsy atmosphere of this Civil War tale of sexual awakening in the Deep South might send some people to sleep.
Coppola has provoked a ‘whitewashing’ controversy by removing a black female slave character who appeared in the original 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and the 1971 film version directed by Clint Eastwood. She also has a white actress playing the part of another mixed-race character. The director has justified this by saying that ‘young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them.’
Instead, the horrific realities of Southern racism are only hinted at through repeated images: the branches of massive trees hung with sunlit Spanish moss. We could be looking at girls’ hair, or Coppola could be nudging us to think of Billie Holiday’s classic anti-lynching song Strange Fruit, with its line ‘Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’.
The Beguiled opens with a girl in pigtails wandering through a tunnel of trees, humming a tune and looking for mushrooms. It is a fairytale image and with her wicker basket Amy (Oona Lawrence) could be Little Red Riding Hood. It’s not long before she discovers a wounded soldier from the North (Colin Farrell). Could he be the big bad wolf?
Amy helps the soldier walk back to her home – Miss Martha’s Seminary for Young Ladies. She tells him that there are only five students now and that all the slaves have left. Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) decides to take him in because ‘wouldn’t it be the Christian thing to do?’ She tends to his gory leg wounds, taking out ‘enough metal to shoe a horse’ before stitching him up and leaving him to convalesce in bed.
Corporal John McBurney is an Irish charmer, just off the ship from Dublin, with a fondness for ‘wildness’ and ‘freedom’. He soon threatens the discipline and decorum of the household, catching the eyes and hearts of most of the girls, particularly Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Alicia (Elle Fanning) and Miss Martha herself. Is this a wolf entering a hen-house or a dopey bear poking a hornet’s nest?
The melodrama plays itself out against a beguiling backdrop of buzzing cicadas and Deep South birdsong, with magnificent misty shots of the palatial house with its crumbling doric columns, beautiful trees framing the girls as wander around in a woozy Picnic at Hanging Rock heat-haze. The Civil War makes itself felt through the boom of distant guns, black smoke drifting up from the horizon like a swarm of flies.
With its routines and rituals, its prayer meetings and civilised meal times, Miss Martha’s Seminary looks like the last bastion of Victorian manners under threat. ‘We could show him some real Southern hospitality,’ she says. But sexual tension in the household reaches ‘twanging’ point when McBurney gets back on his feet and his loud masculinity jolts us out of our stupor.
The Beguiled shows us how quickly the veneer of civilisation is torn apart in times of war, whether on the battlefield or in the home. Miss Martha says she has taught her girls ‘what they need to survive’, and in this peculiar domestic battleground, she has taught them well. All loose ends tied up neatly …