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Battle On A Different Front: The Beguiled

Updated on July 15, 2017

Theatrical poster

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Synopsis

The Beguiled takes place in 1864 Virginia. There, wounded Union corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself bady wounded and separated from his regiment. Amy (Oona Laurence), a student from a nearby girls school, encounters the corporal and gets him to the school. There, the school owner, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), tends to his wounds instead of notifying Condederates in the area, who are now executing anyone they capture. Most of the students agree with the decision, although the musically gifted Jane (Angourie Rice) does express her reservations. Miss Martha locks John in his room. but do what they can to aid in his recovery.

Even though the corporal is in the presence of the opposing side, he begins to form a bond with the ladies there, especially the quiet teacher Eliza Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), who felt she might never be interesting to men. Even Alicia (Elle Fanning), the school's oldest student, finds herself attracted to McBurney. Things change, though, when Edwina sees John with Alicia. In an altercation, Edwina reinjures John's nearly healed leg. Fearing the new injury might turn fatal if not treated, Miss Martha amputates his leg. This decision angers the corporal, and he turns to desperate measures to have a say in his situation.

Evaluation

The Beguiled makes a good statement about war and peace as regards people on opposing sides of a conflict. Compassion still has room with these characters, but that feeling gets tested with every moment. Miss Martha, Edwina, and the girls are in a place where they can keep a secret, even from Confederate soldiers looking for provisions or enemy soldiers. Emotions clould judgment, and eventually finds some characters crossing lines. Sofia Coppola wrote the adaptation of Thomas Cullinen's novel A Painted Devil, and directs The Beguiled, first made in 1971. While I have yet to see the version that starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, and Elizabeth Hartman, Coppola does manage to balance the general peacefulness of Miss Martha's school with a quiet tension that eventually grows less quiet. The charcters reveal what they might be like in times of peace, but they never forget about the war. The turning point, involving McBurney and a pet turtle, seems a bit forced, but viewers should have been prepared for things changing between the man and the women.

The cast gives solid, though mostly restrained, performances. Farrell runs the greatest range of emotion as the corporal, who goes from being virtually helpless to grateful to feeling helpless again. He's caught between feelings of gratitude and entrapment as he recovers from his wounds. Kidman, as Miss Martha, is a woman who has devoted her life to her school, and ultimately holds sway over everyone at her place. Her leadership comes from both her calm words and her calm example. Dunst, as Eliza, seems to be following the same life path as Miss Martha. Unlike Miss Martha, though, Eliza still wonders if a man can be a part of her life, and if John is true to his word about his feelings for her. Fanning, as Alicia, also finds womanly feelings awakened, which puts her at odds with her teacher. Laurence also impresses in support as Amy, who acts out of kindness toward the soldier, then has her youthful emotions tested.

Conclusion

The Beguiled is an effective Civil War that doesn't resort to showing any sort of battlefield conflict. It, instead, shows a conflict of opponents of both ideology and gender that takes place in a setting usually reserved for learning. Corporal John McBurney may be a casualty of men exchanging shots with each other, but he also discovers he has a battle away from the troops he has encountered and come to know.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Beguiled three stars. A temptation to lay down the guard.

The Beguiled trailer

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