Some reviewers have found fault with the erasure of important issues such as slavery from Sofia Coppola’s version of The Beguiled based on a novel about a southern girl’s school set during the Civil War. The school is on a beautiful ante-belum estate surrounded by magnificent trees and woods that let us know we are in a place where innocence will come to a reckoning far more primal than politics. In the opening scene which captures the essence of so many fairy tales, a young girl with pigtails is walking through the deep woods gathering mushrooms in her basket. Instead of a wolf, she comes upon a wounded Union soldier and out of compassion for his plight, helps him back to the school There, he is confronted with a handful of girls and women, all of whom will eventually be implicated in his fate.
Played by Colin Farrell, the soldier can’t help being a sexual turn-on to the range of young lovelies held in check by Miss Martha, the headmistress played by Nicole Kidman. Steady and steely but also open to suggestions from the girls, she asks their opinion on how to deal with the “enemy soldier.” Cool and rational, she agrees to let him remain while he convalesces from her surgery on his leg. We watch as Farrell plays each of the women with intuitive skill while they compete for his attention and affection. Coppola maintains the tension with a minimum of histrionics and some quiet scenes of the girls saying their prayers, playing music and dressing for dinner set beautifully at a candle-lit table that offers a surprising bounty during a time of war. Quite obviously, this is not a kitchen drama about wartime privation.
Ms. Coppola is painting on a larger canvas than American history - the scale is more mythic than realistic and the outside world appears only once briefly with an unexpected appearance by two confederate soldiers who are quickly dispensed with. It would be a spoiler to discuss the plot beyond this set-up but this is a movie skilfully directed, beautifully filmed and more thought-provoking than it first appears. It may take you back much than the 19th century, perhaps as far back as the Garden of Eden.
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