It’s deep in the pines and oaks of Virginia, or maybe not. Given instead a forest of birches, it could be Tolstoy’s or Chekov’s Russia. Tennessee Williams’ cicadas are heard in the woods, Stephen King’s loons heard on some distant, unseen lake. This is the setting of Thomas Cullinan’s novel floating just outside the blood of the Civil War.

There is a house here, once cotton white, now yellowing like an autumn moon. It is a stately mansion where belles met beaus, snuck kisses under willow trees.

There are women here of various ages but no men, they have gone to war and fallen into eternal sleep on the fields of battle, and left their lady fairs behind.

Set in this decaying Greek revival mansion (Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House) is a one time girls school under the care of Southern Baptist Miss Martha Farnsworth (a starchy Nicole Kidman).

Miss Martha has among her seven students Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Alicia (Elle Fanning) and little Amy (Oona Laurence) who likes to forage for edible mushrooms in the woods.

It’s here that Amy discovers the wounded Corporal John McBurney (a splendid and smoky Colin Farrell) under an oak, bleeding from a bad leg wound.


Amy helps John back to the house, to Miss Martha and her smoldering flock of vestal virgins. Here, Irish John with his soft, seductive Kerry brogue, is attended to and has his wounds mended.

John, an Irishman recruited for the Yankees right off the boat, hasn’t seen a woman since the war began, and here there are seven of them, all lace and lavender, smelling of powder and early morning milk. What could possibly go wrong?

There will be whispered chats in the hallways about what is to be done with poor John, this Black Irish renegade with a silver tongue and soiled soul. Turn him over to the passing Confederates at once, which will result in his immediate execution? Or wait a bit until he is groomed, bathed (that’s a scene stealer) and made respectable?

He must be fed, of course, and Southern vittles are prepared and eaten by candlelight.

Where all this food comes from in the waning days of the war is a question brushed, with a myriad others, under the still clean Oriental rugs.

There is only a brief glimpse of actual sex in this 99 minutes, but there are buckets and buckets of feverish nights, sweaty palms, shoulders and bare necks, while glances and moist lips glow in the candle light.


The bathing scene where Miss Martha accepts her Christian duty of sewing up his wound, after slowly undressing our Irish warrior and carefully washing away the excess of battle mud is a classic. Coppola’s camera slides down John’s body alongside Miss Martha’s moist cotton cloth clutched tightly in her gentle hand.

Writer and director Sofia Coppola leaves just enough to the imagination, knowing you will bring your own.

There will be the usual touches we’ve associated with Southern lust and revenge, from Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to Truman Capote.

Coppola clearly has fallen in love with southern gothic heat, and one could warm the gulf coast with it.

I had only one problem with “The Beguiled.” It seemed for a long time that I was watching the film with my sunglasses on, so dark is cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s lighting. I know we’re deep in the pines where the sun, famously, never shines, but another lamp here and there?

After John suffers an accident, Miss Martha is once again called upon to perform invasive surgery, with a result that invokes a moment from Sam Wood’s 1942 “Kings Row.”


Irish actor Colin Farrell slithers beautifully like Eden’s tree snake and arrives in this garden of seven Eves, with plenty of juicy apples for all.

Sofia has now officially earned a right to downplay her family name. I just hope she lights the dark more brightly in her next piece.

On this, she owes a huge debt to Amy Beth Silver’s set decor, Anne Ross’ production design, Sarah Flack’s editing.

“The Beguiled” is a hot summer gothic dish of mushrooms and moonlight, dark corners and sharp edges. Bring a lace fan. Leave grandma at home.

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