And what it is, is a dreamily rendered impressionist drawing room drama, a psycho-sexual thriller buttoned up in a prim and proper façade. Sofia Coppola’s latest meditation on privileged femininity is an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same title, and it’s a beautiful idea of a terrible time, stirringly acted and flawlessly shot. It’s also a disastrous portrayal of the Civil War South, a willfully ignorant and exclusionary narrative that refuses to acknowledge anything that doesn’t fit into a preconceived notion of antebellum womanhood. The Beguiled is an exquisite jewel box inside a house on fire.
Taking it for what it is, The Beguiled is Coppola working at her best, combining her eye for detail and refined aesthetics, and her penchant for stories of women suffering ennui. Her privileged protagonists are not all equally captivating, but in The Beguiled she has a worthy ensemble of women and girls stewing in Southern heat and repressed sexuality just waiting to boil over into drama and murder. Nicole Kidman heads the group as Miss Martha, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Virginia. The school only has five students left and the house and grounds have gone to rack and ruin in the later days of the Civil War. “All the slaves left,” one girl says plainly, the only acknowledgment of slavery in the whole film.
The arrival of an injured Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), upsets the delicate balance of the school. Immediately, the ladies all begin dressing a little better, and the girls jockey for McBurney’s attention. Miss Martha is the wariest of him, but even she eventually thaws, and his presence stirs in her memories of the grand old days of her home, back when she was literally the belle of the ball. And there’s also Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the only other teacher left. McBurney singles her out immediately and goes to work, swiftly making her fall in love with him, obviously hoping she’ll help him escape being turned over to either army, or stay on at the school as a deserter. The way the women interact with one another shifts as McBurney’s role in their lives shift, and Coppola is an acute observer when it comes to the rarified realms of privileged white women and how those women push back against the boundaries inherent in their world.
Which swiftly becomes the main—and practically only—problem with The Beguiled. You just cannot ignore the gaping hole of context at the center of the film. A battle rages not far from the school, cannon fire thudding dully in the distance, and the women reference Union soldiers pillaging their garden and livestock. It’s not like the film is attempting to ignore the war happening outside the school gates. It just doesn’t want to engage with it, at all.
Coppola is being criticised for white-washing the film, erasing a black character, a former slave called Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 adaptation), and for turning Miss Edwina, who should be a white-passing biracial woman, into a white woman, as well. (That latter decision renders Miss Edwina the dullest character of the lot and no amount of desultory sulking from Dunst can save her.) Coppola does not have a good track record with race in her films, and she seems to know it, as she said to Buzzfeed that she “didn't want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. […] Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”
There’s something to be said for a filmmaker who, as Ira Madison III puts it, “stays in her lane”. Sofia Coppola is not the filmmaker I want to see tell a slave narrative, and neither is she the filmmaker who wants to tell it. In and of itself, that’s fine—she can make whatever movie she wants. But The Beguiled cannot stand up with just her parlor games of feminine performance and sexual repression. The era and the plantation setting demand context Coppola willfully withholds and it does lessen her film.
Coppola’s protagonists live inside bubbles of insane privilege, or occasionally long to pierce that bubble and attain some privilege for themselves (The Bling Ring). In The Beguiled, the women have been inside that privileged bubble, but war has lowered them, forcing them to fend for themselves even as they maintain the trappings of their privilege. This fits into Coppola’s raison d’etre, but it removes the narrative from its own foundation of white supremacy, and, intentionally or not, absolves the women of their place within an exploitative system in which they are both exploited and exploiter. In focusing strictly on gender politics, Coppola renders her protagonists less interesting, which ultimately makes The Beguiled an exercise in selective seeing. Yes, The Beguiled is a sumptuous and taut psycho-sexual thriller, but it’s also a blinkered and ignorant piece of historical fiction.