Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, the writer-director’s adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War-set novel A Painted Devil, begins as a straightforward Southern Gothic psychodrama. The filmmaker, though, distinguishes her version of the source novel from the 1971 Don Siegel-helmed adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page by treating Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) as a more enigmatic catalyst for the changes that take place inside Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies upon his arrival. Rather than primarily focus on McBurney and the horrifying consequences of his unchecked horniness, Coppola intensely homes in on her heroines’ conflicted feelings about sex.
Siegel’s film pulpily fixates on McBurney and his outsider status, and how his unchecked lust drives him to monstrously stalk the seminary—like a fox in a hen house. But Coppola’s take is more interested in the boarding school’s all-female residents’ personal struggles to accept that they’re allowed to be sexually attracted to an enemy soldier. Women like headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and her school’s head teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), are obviously drawn to McBurney, though they go to great lengths to avoid admitting that attraction. The film is set, after all, in Virginia in 1864, and McBurney is, as Edwina cautions, the kind of man they’ve been warned about: one with a predilection for raping Southern women.