To call something beguiling is to say that it’s unexpectedly captivating. That’s an apt description for this movie because it’s got all of the classic ingredients of a boring period film, and yet it’s much more than that.
The film is set in 1864 Virginia. The Civil War is going hot and heavy, but Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) are doing their best to ignore it while they run their school for girls, though only five students remain (the eldest of whom is played by Elle Fanning). While out picking mushrooms for dinner, one of the students happens upon Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier that has been shot in the leg and won’t last on his own. She helps him to the school, where Martha cleans and stitches the wound. She seems to do a good enough job, and John starts to get better.
After some discussion about how to handle the situation, the women decide that the best course of action is to let McBurney stay as long as it takes for him to recuperate, and then to hand him over to become a prisoner of the Confederate Army. To do it too soon would risk his health, but they’ve all heard stories of soldiers raping and pillaging helpless women. But it turns out that John is polite and charming, and is a source of sexy and dangerous fascination for each of the ladies. And when he’s well enough to start moving around, he pitches in to help with the chores. And then something happens to make everything change.
For most of its 93-minute runtime, it’s a basic period drama. There’s nothing too remarkable about it, except that for some reason, it’s just really good. It proceeds slowly, but somehow it doesn’t feel slow. All of the adults and a few (but not all) of the students are thoroughly developed. Each of the women takes to McBurney’s presence a little differently, but they’re all drawn to him in some way, and it creates a bit of a rivalry.
Then the movie cuts to black for a moment. It’s a harsh, abrupt cut that feels very out of place with the rest of the film. But it comes back, and you’re wondering whether it might have just been an editing mistake that slipped through the cracks. But then you realize that things are a little different now and that the hard cut was appropriate and is intended to be off-putting. It’s skilled filmmaking masquerading as clumsiness, and it makes the movie all the more impressive.
I haven’t seen the 70s version of the film with Clint Eastwood as the wayward soldier, so I can’t make any comparisons between the films. But even though I’m a big fan of several of director Don Siegel’s other movies, it’s hard to imagine it being as slick as what Sofia Coppola has given us. But now I’m eager to find out how the earlier film stacks up.