Rated R. Running time: 1 hr. 33 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.
Director Sofia Coppola’s erotic suspense thriller is a reinterpretation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War era novel rather than a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation that starred Clint Eastwood. Thus, the tone and emphasis of the new film is different, which we would expect since this version’s director is a woman. Just watch the trailer for the first film, and you will see that the older film’s male viewpoint, the women and girls at the girls’ finishing school described as “man-deprived” and “man-eager,” with the wounded Union soldier they take in labeled as their “prisoner.” Ms. Coppola gives us the women’s viewpoint of the tragic story, one that we can see as a visual parable about lust and vengeance, and the results of giving in to them.
The film begins with postcard quality camera work by cinemaphotographer Philippe Le Sourd’s shots of a lane lined by live oaks, moss cascading from their branches. We are told that it is 1864 and that the setting is Farnsworth Seminary in a remote area of Virginia, both the year and location changed from the original 1863 and Mississippi. Amy (Oona Laurence), the pig-tailed youngest of the five students remaining at the finishing school is out in the woods picking mushrooms. Both she and the latter play a pivotal role in the story’s denouement. She is terrified at first by coming upon a badly wounded Union soldier, but the Irish-accented Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) convinces her to help him. The slight girl manages to assist him in the walk to the white-pillared mansion, but just as they approach its steps, he falls unconscious to the ground. Answering the girl’s loud cry, the other females rush to the scene and hover around him.
Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) quickly takes charge. Some of the girls want nothing of “a blue-belly,” but when Amy says it would be “the Christian thing” to render the man aid, Martha orders the older girls to lift McBurney’s body and carry him to the first-floor music room. She states that they will give him aid and shelter until he has recovered.
Locking the door, she directs one girl to cut the left leg of the trouser, whereupon a long bloody gash is revealed. She calmly uses tweezers to extract the shrapnel fragments, the metal pieces making a ringing sound as she drops them into a pan. Shooing the other curious girls out, she washes the still unconscious man’s dirty, naked body, a towel covering his privates. As she reaches that area, she hesitates, so we wonder if this due just to Victorian prudery or something else.
Martha serves as strict guardian when McBurney awakens. Most of the time she keeps his door locked. When it is left partially open, she frequently orders a curious girl to leave.
Aware that she has saved his life, the patient is all politeness and sweetness. He says that he had just arrived from Ireland when he accepted the $300 paid to those willing to substitute for a draftee. He admits to having had his fill of warfare, his wound inflicted as he was running away. “It wasn’t brave of you to run,” observes Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, the school’s French teacher. “But it was smart, I think,” he replies. Seeing that he had not been fighting because he believed in the Northern cause, she and the others warm up to the enemy soldier. Teenage Alicia (Elle Fanning) is especially drawn to him, far more openly than Edwina. All the girls eagerly join in singing for him, and when he joins them at the dinner table for the first time, all are dressed in their finest gowns. The glib-tongued guest is quick to praise Edwina, Martha, and their tablemates.
Polite and considerate toward all, he insinuates himself into their hearts. Even the more sensible Martha is drawn to him, inviting him one night, after the others have retired to their bedrooms, to sit with her for a nightcap. When two Confederate soldiers from the nearby camp stop by to check on the ladies, Martha does not turn her patient over to them. She keeps behind her back the pistol she had taken out upon hearing their loud knocking. You can safely bet it will figure in the story later.
McBurney listens to the women’s conversations when he can to pick up any hint of how long he will be allowed to stay. He knows that even if he is not turned over to the Confederates, he will be in danger, regarded as a deserter by his former Union comrades. Both as a means of being valued as indispensable and as a hedge against being thrust out, he volunteers to serve as a handyman, the gardens and the house being in a very rundown state. There are no slaves on the grounds, not even Hallie, a slave from the book and 1971 film. Whether intended or not, this makes us feel more sympathetic to the seven women, all of whom, of course, espouse the Southern cause. (This reminds me somewhat of the only Union soldier that we see close up in Gone with the Wind, an evil lustful man who tries to rape Scarlett.)
Had McBurney played things straight, he might have been able to live in security to the end of the war. He has beguiled all the women and girls, winning young Amy over by telling her she is his best friend there. But he has aroused the sexuality in so many, including himself, that his situation becomes like that of a heavy smoker residing in a dynamite shack. When he shows favoritism by sneaking into Alicia’s room late one night, Edwina discovers them. Her jealousy sets off the explosion that changes everything.
Several times cannon fire rumbles in the distance, but at Farnsworth there erupts an inner force just as powerful, that of long repressed lust of the older females. McBurney’s lust results in a far greater injury than his original one. In his rage, he gains possession of the pistol, but he will find that he will need more than that to dominate the seven women, none of whom can any longer be considered “beguiled.”
This Southern Gothic tale of beguilement is far less violent than the original film—no flashback to battle scenes, and at the start of the amputation of a leg, the director jumps forward in time, sparing us the gruesome sight. As stated earlier, Ms. Coppola’s film can be seen as a visual parable showing the results of lust, jealousy and vengeance—first in the case of McBurney who reaps what he sows, and then the women. They regard themselves as “good Christians,” but their evil guest has aroused in them not only sexual lust, but also jealousy of each other, and eventually of hate that leads to deception and murder. The film ends with all seven females on the steps of the mansion, arranged as if they are sitting for a group portrait rather than the expected Confederates who will soon come to check on their safety. Outwardly they appear as the same as when we first saw them thus posed. Inwardly, however, they are greatly changed, and it is not for the good. Evidence of this is in the object lying on the ground in front of the iron gate of the grounds.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July 2017 issue of VP.