July 17, 2018
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  • This new version of “The Beguiled” tells the same story as the 1971 film, but from the women’s perspective.
    Photo courtesy of Focus Features
    This new version of “The Beguiled” tells the same story as the 1971 film, but from the women’s perspective.

“The Beguiled” Tackles Timeless Themes As A Period Piece

Audrey Ruppert
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August 10, 2017

The brilliance of “The Beguiled” is that despite being set during the Civil War, the film feels distinctly modern in its takedown of a certain kind of man, the kind who has existed since the beginning of time but is only now receiving the criticism he deserves. Millennials have their own lewd term for such a man, but for the sake of politeness, we will use a period appropriate, 19th-century term — “libertine.”

“The Beguiled” has all the hallmarks of a biblical parable; each character represents an archetype, items throughout the film carry symbolism, the entire story takes place in one location and the moral lesson can be applied to any time, place or situation. The premise is simple – during the height of the Civil War, a young, southern girl is picking mushrooms in the forest and stumbles across a wounded Union soldier. She brings the soldier back to a boarding school for girls. Most of the girls, teachers and slaves have left or run away, and only one schoolteacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); the schoolmaster, Martha (Nicole Kidman); and a few students remain, including the Lolita-like Alicia (Elle Fanning).

Each character represents a different type of woman who gets ensnared by libertines. Martha is strong and independent, runs her own boarding school, has been steeled by past emotional losses, and is initially cold and distrustful of the libertine, Colonel John McBurney. Edwina is insecure and looking for emotional fulfillment, and runs back to McBurney no matter how outrageous or horrid his behavior. Alicia is young and discovering herself sexually, and ready to throw herself at McBurney with little to no caution.

McBurney (Colin Ferrell) is a skillful libertine; he carefully studies each woman and rapidly gains an intimate understanding of what each one wants and then exploits this to his advantage. He initially presents himself as perfectly charming, as all libertines do - he is a salt of the earth, poor Irishman who signed up to fight for another man as soon as he came off the boat, and he never asked to be where he ended up. He graciously accepts gifts, such as a prayer book from the younger girls, and expresses interest in their interests. Before long, he seduces each woman in turn – Martha by gaining her trust and presenting himself as a hard worker and honest man, Edwina by playing to her insecurities and Alicia by simply reciprocating her advances.

The most brilliant part of “The Beguiled” is the title. It perfectly captures the hallmark feature of the libertine: the ability to make everything that happens in a relationship the woman’s fault, even though the man is clearly the guilty party. In the climax of the film, where it is revealed that McBurney is not as charming as he initially seemed, he shouts something to the effect of, “You tricked me!” We realize that although it is the women who were the beguiled and the deceived, McBurney has masterfully convinced Edwina in particular that the entire mess is her fault, and that he was the beguiled.

“The Beguiled” is a remake – with Clint Eastwood as the initial lead – but told from a female perspective. I could tell right away that it was directed by a woman, in the same way I could tell “Wonder Woman” was directed by a woman, even though I had not done prior research. It is an unforgiving look at the libertines who have ruined the lives of women throughout history, and bestows the righteous justice that such people deserve with its extremely satisfying ending.

The film is slow initially, wholly unsuspecting and southern, just as Colonel McBurney must have taken the women to be. We see the women engage in yawn-inducing, repetitive tasks - cooking, praying and gardening in idyllic Virginia scenery. Tension slowly fills the seemingly inoffensive setting; the bombs of war are heard but not seen, and anxiety begins to increase in typical southern fashion - the women convey nothing directly but fill every line of dialogue with unnerving subtext. Finally, tensions boil over in an explosive twist that packs a real punch well worth the wait.

“The Beguiled” is not everyone’s cup of tea (the film was well received by critics but panned by audiences), but it is a story that has not been properly told for far too long.

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