As McBurney, an Irish immigrant with no allegiance to the Union beyond what they owe him in pay, recuperates, he offers to help around the estate as a hired hand. This proves to be an enticing offer for all, students and staff. Coppola captures the students as they lounge around the giant willows of the estate, finding them as they read perched atop branches. It’s a breathtakingly idyllic spot, save for all the gun smoke a few miles away, but despite the natural beauty that would easily justify a far-longer getting-to-know-everyone period before McBurney shows up, everyone is plainly bored. There has been a slow and steady exodus of everyone but these remaining seven, with staff, playmates, and slaves (more on that later) gradually melting away. The change from subtraction of their numbers to addition is interesting enough, but the addition of a handsome man throws the estate into the antebellum-gentility equivalent of a frenzy.
The younger students all have their designs on McBurney’s attention, but those that have the best shot at it are Farnsworth, her underling Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and older student Alicia (Elle Fanning). Farnsworth most enjoys having someone around she isn’t superior to, and can therefore let her hair down ever so slightly. Kidman plays the headmistress as someone completely in control, the benevolent ruler of this little fiefdom. Morrow is the most age-appropriate partner to McBurney, and she sees him as someone who could take her away from this and potentially start a new life far away from battle. Dunst gives her a sad and needy mien, implying a past tragedy or regret that she’s using McBurney to salve. Alicia is pulled straight from Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, a seductress who’s testing out her new feminine wings. Equipped with a severe case of senioritis, she chafes against the static form her life has taken, and McBurney gives her the chance to rebel. As one of the best actors in her age group, Fanning is consistently great in everything she does and the same holds here. She is in complete control of a particular expression of blasé mischief that Alicia utilizes at every opportunity.
It wouldn’t be a Sofia Coppola film without a master’s control of every aspect of her film. The Beguiled is at its best when her camera is simply taking in a perfectly composed and dressed frame. With the help of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (he of the impeccable Grandmaster), Coppola has crafted her best-looking film. She extends character development into the costuming, as the girls start dressing differently around McBurney, spending more time primping before dinner and showing a bit more shoulder than before. There is an exacting quality to The Beguiled, where every prop seems to be hanging at a specified angle, suggested by a crew member and ok’d by Coppola, unless Coppola dictated everything herself. She puts every dollar of her surprisingly-small budget onscreen, and the result is worth the effort.
It’s impossible to talk about a Civil War film without talking about slaves, and The Beguiled, perhaps wanting to skip the whole thing, only has an off-handed mention to the estate’s workforce. There’s something like a lie that suffuses the film, where the opening paradise that girls of privilege take advantage of was maintained by brute force and human misery. McBurney is framed as a cancer cell that breaks off from the tumor outside the gates, infecting the school and altering its tenuous equilibrium. The Beguiled allows the viewer to forget that the cancer was always there, that the film’s main location was an active participant in the forces that brought the war to their doorstep. Coppola pulls her punches by having all the slaves be long-gone when the film begins. Was Laurence’s adorable naturalist as kind to the slaves as she is to McBurney? What form did Farnsworth’s desire for order take amongst people she owned? Coppola masterfully showed that she could depict obscene behavior without judgment in The Bling Ring. For all its positive qualities, The Beguiled is still something of a cop-out, a half-measure more interested in its pulpy Gothic romance than its historical setting, when it’s conceivable that the latter could’ve coexisted with the former. B