An Analysis and Review of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

By Claire Wilson 

April 11, 2024

Sofia Coppola’s 2017 film, The Beguiled, takes place at a girl’s boarding school in the South during the Civil War, where most of the students, teachers, and slaves have left due to the danger of the war surrounding them. Five students, a teacher, and the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, remain. While looking for mushrooms in the woods, a younger student, Amy, finds a union soldier, Corporal John McBurney. She helps him back to the school, where he is warily cared for by Miss Farnsworth. As he is nursed back to health, the girls begin to develop friendships with him. He mainly focuses his attention on Ms. Morrow, the only remaining teacher, who he eventually confesses his love to. One night, she hears noises coming from upstairs, and finds McBurney with Alicia, an older student. He pleads with her, causing her to push him away, and down the stairs. His broken leg is amputated by Miss Farnsworth. When he wakes up, he has explosive episodes of anger which he takes out on the others. Fearing for the girls’ safety, Miss Farnsworth asks Amy to pick poisonous mushrooms, which they serve to McBurney at dinner, killing him. 

Coppola chooses to infuse the movie with scenic shots of the oppressive heat of the Virginia woods and the white columns of the school. She recruited French cinematographer Philippe le Sourd during the production of the film, and he recalls, “the exteriors were shot at very specific times of the day. We shot at dusk and sunset to amplify the sense of immediate danger, for example.” The film’s cold, dark wash and underlying tensions make it a very haunting and tense film. Coppola’s choice of frilly pastel dresses, dark lighting, candlelight, and Catholicism adhere to modern aesthetics just enough to feel fresh and relevant while maintaining historical accuracy. 

Photo credit: IMP Awards

The girls sew McBurney's body into a shroud (Photo credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features)

The theme of isolation occurs in The Beguiled over and over again. The most obvious example is the school, which is secluded from the outside world both because of its location in the woods, and because of the danger of the war which prevents its inhabitants from leaving. This isolation is punctured suddenly by McBurney’s arrival, which causes the girls’ attraction to him, an attraction which is clearly caused by their seclusion. At an all-girls school, seeing men is an infrequent occurrence, and the sudden appearance of an attractive younger man is irresistible. On a more personal level, the girls are largely isolated from themselves. Although they are obviously close, there are no clear friendships between any of them. When the corporal arrives, their competition for his attention isolates them further from each other through passive aggressive bickering and upstaging. 

An interesting aspect of the tension between the women and McBurney is that he is a Union soldier. Many of the girls initially dislike him because they are Southerners and argue that he should be turned over to the Confederates as a prisoner of war. This tension never fully fades, even as they start to warm up to him. Upon the film’s release, many criticized it of “white-washing,” because the cast is entirely white and the story does not have any references to slavery, like the original 1971 version did. Coppola defended her decision in a statement in July of 2017, saying, “I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” She explained that the focus of the movie was on male and female power dynamics, particularly in different stages of a woman’s life, as opposed to the issue of slavery. 

The Beguiled is a chilling story that explores what women are capable of under the influence of fear, lust, and jealousy. Although the plot is somewhat predictable, it is a stunning movie. Coppola tells a haunting story, not so much through dialogue or complex plotlines, but through symbolism, setting, and intense, foreboding visuals. 

Photo credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features
Photo credit: Ben Rothstein/Focus Features