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Who should we be rooting for?
Three years into the Civil War, we find ourselves on an old plantation in the heart of war-torn Virginia. With the war constantly close but still out of reach, the plantation now functions as a seminary for young girls sent by their parents from across the south. During a sultry summer day in Virginia, one of the girls attending the seminary stumbles upon a Union soldier who has deserted his unit and is severely injured. We begin a slow but intriguing journey through the lens of southern courtesy about what life is like for the women at the seminary and how they deal with the stranger, and perceived enemy, in their midst.
Three main aspects of the movie stand out: who has the control and who thinks they have control; how southern courtesy determines actions and clouds people’s true intentions; and how director Sofia Coppola spins the tale in a way where we cannot settle on who we want to win and who we perceive to be the “villain.”
Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) runs the seminary under an intense rule and her control over the entire house is absolute. She immediately extends that control over her unwelcomed guest, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrel). Slowly he earns the trust of some of the girls and against Miss Martha’s initial reactions, she relents on certain aspects of the treatment of their guest. McBurney is hilariously courted by Alicia (Elle Fanning), but he has clear intentions to court the older Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). On the celebratory night before McBurney is set to leave, Miss Martha enters the fray and begins to subtly court McBurney as well. She momentarily releases control of the house hoping McBurney will visit her room in the night. McBurney decides against both Miss Martha and Edwina’s wishes and enters Alicia’s bed. He is caught by Edwina and in her frustration she throws him down the stairs. Miss Martha sees his leg broken and decides to cut it off to save him. Her decision to amputate McBurney’s leg seems necessary, but doubt is sown when she calls for an anatomy book for aid and with the agony McBurney is in when he sees his leg gone. McBurney tries to regain control of the situation through violence, but when he is most vulnerable, the youngest girl Marie (Addison Riecke)—seemingly the most innocent of all—constructs a plan with the other girls and Miss Martha. Miss Martha deviously destroys all hope of McBurney regaining control through her subtlety and courtesy.
Sofia Coppola never truly reveals who is in the wrong or the right through many of her decisions as director and plants doubt into the minds of the viewer as they try to decide who to root for in the end. The southern courtesy aspect adds to the mystery behind the good and the bad. We constantly see the true intentions of all the characters, but the characters in the movie often seem to misinterpret each other. A fatal mistake occurs between Edwina and McBurney that leads to him choosing Alicia over Edwina and Miss Martha. It is a commentary on how during that period, being outward with your emotions and desires was frowned upon. We see the cracks in that mindset as the women spend more time with McBurney. We also see the other side of using southern courtesy and how it can be used to an advantage. The final supper is organized by Miss Martha to see McBurney off and to McBurney, it is seemingly done out of respect for the guest. However, through that courtesy, Miss Martha ruthlessly regains control of the affairs of her house. It is a powerful scene and while devious, it almost seems necessary to rid the house of McBurney forever.
The Beguiled speaks on how the women of the seminary struggle and also thrive through the Civil War period and how they defy proper customs. These defiant decisions do not always lead to preferred outcomes, but they do show how much control they truly have over their lives.