The school sits on a bubble.
A sublime Virginia mansion houses the Miss Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, its entryway flanked by towering oaks, its porch graced by ivory-white columns. Inside, a handful of girls and young women practice their French, work on their needlepoint and say their prayers.
You'd hardly know that a war was raging nearby if not for cannons, their rumble rolling across the land like distant thunder, blending with the shrill buzz of the cicadas.
It's 1864 and the Civil War rages, nowhere fiercer than Virginia. A dozen major battles have been fought within its borders, the blood of thousands of soldiers soaking its soil. The school's still open because the five students remaining there have nowhere else to go. Thanks to providence, the Confederate army or just plain dumb luck, the seminary's remained almost untouched. True, some chickens got lost a while back. But it still has its cow, its garden, its students, its standards. The war rages beyond the trees, and the school stands as it has for a century— like a marbled memory, untouched by the baser, bloodier conflict beyond.
Little Miss Amy is plucking mushrooms for dinner when she finds a soldier injured in the woods. He's a Union man—a "bluebelly" they call him here—but Amy can't just leave him.
"I can't say you'd be welcome as a Yankee, but it'd be better than here," she tells him. She helps the soldier to his feet, and together they wobble toward the mansion until he falls unconscious.
His name's John. John McBurney. The corporal has been shot in the leg, but he'd already lost his taste for war before that. Miss Martha, the school's head mistress, has him placed in the music room. She plucks out the shrapnel and stitches him up. He may live, she announces.
But if he does, a question lingers: What should be done with him? He's a Yankee, after all. Some of the them think they should signal the Confederate army to fetch him and cart him off to a prison camp. But given his injury, wouldn't that be just as good as killing him? Perhaps they should keep him safe—just until his leg heals. No longer than that, of course. But to let him stay—for a while—is simply the Christian thing to do.
As John slowly recovers, however, the line between charity and desire grows blurry.
John drinks brandy with Miss Martha, stares into her eyes and tells her how strong she must be to care for all these young ladies. How brave. To her plain assistant Miss Edwina, John is more direct: "I've never run across such a delicate beauty as yours," he tells her. He runs leering eyes over coquettish older student Alicia as she curls her lips and plays with her hair.
John makes friends with the younger students, too. He tells Amy that she's his "best friend in the whole place." Each girl and woman believes she has a special connection with John. A special relationship.
But who is he really? Miss Martha's handsome helpmate? Edwina's knight in shining armor? Alicia's hot-blooded scoundrel? Or someone who simply doesn't want to leave?
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
John survives because of the kindness of these strangers. If Amy hadn't found him and Miss Martha hadn't stitched him up, the corporal would've certainly died from his wounds. And while their motives for keeping John around may be mixed, they're still mixed with the desire the women all have to keep him alive and safe, restoring him as much as possible.
But Miss Martha knows that letting the man stay just wouldn't be right, as much as part of her wishes she could. After inspecting his injured leg, she tells him that he's well enough to leave by the end of the week. When he suggests he could stay on as a gardener, she simply says, "In these times, one just must learn to do without."
It demonstrates the woman's strength and resolve—the same traits that she used to keep the school open, and the same traits on display when things go bad. And while she may make a less-than-ethical decision in a time of dire emergency, she makes it to protect her students.
Amy, meanwhile, is arguably the most soft-hearted girl in the school, caring for turtles and other animals in need. Someone reminds her that John isn't one of her injured creatures.
Back in the days of the Civil War, a ladies' "seminary" wasn't a place of theological training, but a private school for girls in an age where education for women was pretty rare.
But while the school wasn't intended as a religious institution, the environment is still quite spiritual. Every night, Miss Martha leads her young pupils in a formal prayer—for their own safety, for the war effort and sometimes for the unexpected guest in their house. They say grace every evening at dinner, too. Most of the girls there are apparently Catholic: After grace, they cross themselves.
One of them also gives John a prayer book. When she presents it and asks John if he's Catholic, he says that he was baptized and leaves it at that. It's the only time he references religion at all … unless he's swearing.
Miss Martha well knows that the presence of a man in an all-girl school is a potentially combustible mix. When some other soldiers come by the school, she tells the girls to hide themselves. "I do not want to put temptation in their way," she says.
The man in the music room changes the school's atmosphere immediately. Some of the young women begin wearing jewelry. And when Miss Martha agrees to host John for dinner, everyone dresses in their finest finery, some squeezing into corsets for the occasion. (Edwina wears a dress that falls off her shoulders a bit; Miss Martha gently suggests she cover her shoulders with a shawl.)
But beneath the school's conditioned social propriety runs an unmistakable undercurrent of sexual desire. After Miss Martha tends to John's wounds, she gives the unconscious man a sponge bath. John's middle is covered with a cloth but the skin otherwise is exposed; and when she sponges clean the area around that concealing cloth, it's obvious Martha's pulled by temptation. (She lifts part of the cloth to reveal the side of John's body.) Late that night, Alicia spirits into John's room and passionately kisses the still mostly unconscious soldier, bidding him good night. John tells Edwina that he loves her and, that evening, asks if he might visit her later that night.
The implication is clear, and Edwina is amenable to it. We see her break out a fancy nightgown (presumably something she was saving for her wedding night), brush her hair and dab perfume behind her ears. She lies down on her bed waiting for her suitor to come visit. But when she hears his heavy footfalls in the hall, they don't lead into her room, but Alicia's. She barges in and finds John on Alicia's bed, the girl giggling as John plays about with Alicia's thick undergarments. (We don't see any skin.) Later, Alicia tries to suggest that John barged in and attacked her.
Elsewhere, a woman barricades herself in the music room with John and the two have obvious, almost violent sex. Clothes get torn. Movements are explicit (though without nudity). Later, the two enjoy a post-coital sleep together.
John's war wound looks painful. The flesh is torn and bloody, and Miss Martha says that it's filled with enough metal to "shoe a horse." She meticulously and graphically picks out the lead pieces with a pair of large tweezers, then stitches the wound back together with a gigantic, hooked sewing needle.
Edwina's furious after finding John and Alicia together. And in her rage, she accidentally (or not?) pushes him down a long flight of stairs. The fall snaps John's injured leg grotesquely and tears apart Miss Martha's stitches. He's carried back into the music room, where Miss Martha—her dress covered in bright-red blood—announces that the leg can't be saved: She'll have to cut it off, and she orders someone to get the saw from the smokehouse. Later, we see (from a distance) the girls as they bury John's severed limb.
Guns are brandished and, at one juncture, fired. Women are threatened, with one having her hair pulled violently. We hear violent rages and the breaking of furniture. A bottle gets smashed to the ground, shattering.
Someone is poisoned: Unable to breathe, the victim collapses on the floor. The corpse is later sewn up in a cloth and left by the front gate.
Crude or Profane Language
Jesus' name is abused three times, and God's name is misused twice, once with the word "d--n." We also hear one use of "b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Miss Martha and John drink brandy by a fire. Wine is served at dinner. John appears to get drunk, drinking straight from a bottle at one point. Alcohol is poured on a wound.
Other Negative Elements
Alicia tells a lie to visit John (who is, not surprisingly, a deserter).
The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name (which, in turn, was based on a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan called A Painted Devil). It snagged director Sophia Coppola the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It's a pretty simple story, but it comes packed with plenty of subtext.
And frankly, for an R-rated flick, this one technically minds its manners. While sexual encounters do happen, audiences aren't exposed to graphic nudity. While violence is critical to the tale that unspools (and plenty graphic when it shows up), it's not pervasive.
No, The Beguiled is rated R perhaps more for its concepts than content. Its tension-filled plot revolves around sex and the threat of violence. The themes in play are provocative, harsh and disturbing. There's a harrowing sense of dread and doom that builds throughout, and the conclusion might spark a certain measure of ethical confusion.
Indeed, the title may not just refer to the girls and women in Miss Farnsworth's seminary, beguiled though they may be by John's charms. It may not just refer to John, who himself is beguiled by the school's bucolic setting, its attractive boarders and, eventually, by Miss Martha's own deceptive kindness.
In addition, the title here could easily refer to the audience. After all, we, too, may find ourselves beguiled by Coppola's subtle mastery of the medium, the film's slow setup and powerful acting and simple-but-supple storyline. We may be led to root for the strong, brave Miss Martha and her young charges. We may even want to forgive her for the terrible choice she eventually feels compelled to make. Like some of the girls who try to make excuses for John, we may want to do the same for Miss Martha. Let's let this Commandment slide, we might want to say. Just this once.
But we can't, of course. This movie, like its characters, can seduce to no good end.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nicole Kidman as Martha Farnsworth; Kirsten Dunst as Edwina Dabnew; Colin Farrell as John McBurney; Oona Laurence as Amy; Angourie Rice as Jane; Addison Riecke as Marie; Emma Howard as Emily
Sofia Coppola ( )
June 30, 2017