McBurney’s transformation happens subtly but steadily, despite his physical incapacitation. Having been installed on the fainting couch of the Farnsworth Seminary’s music room, Corporal McBurney is subject to the ministrations of the six women living in the largely abandoned boarding school. Literally locked away and convalescing in the same spot for days, he entertains a parade of pale, pastel-clad women of different ages at his bedside. Each one furtively enters bearing some bit of news or help—water for a bath, soap for a shave, fresh bandages for his leg, even an unbidden kiss. The youngest piously slips him a prayer book, explaining that he’ll need it to make confession since he’s wounded and, by her estimation, likely to die very soon.
The repetition of this scenario is important: It highlights the constraints of McBurney’s situation. His knowledge of the school, the women in it, and their dispositions toward him are meted out to him in uneven portions during the visits he receives at all hours. Immobilized and locked into his room, his experience raises questions once again about appearances and realities: He is at once fussed-about patient, caged curiosity, charming bachelor, and enemy prisoner.
Meanwhile, each member in the trio of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and restless ingénue Alicia (Elle Fanning) is very much whom she appears to be and more. The women compose a triangle that slowly takes shape around Corporal McBurney. Not quite a “love triangle” (it has more angles, and the romantic claims are shifting and indistinct), the rivalry arises as a byproduct of the desire that each one has for a male presence in her life.
McBurney faces both the opportunity and misfortune of having triggered these women’s longings. The opportunity, initially, is to stand simultaneously as a placeholder in their fantasies. His misfortune, in the end, is that of being only one man, incapable of satisfying any of the three women once reality takes hold. What might prove romantically inconvenient in another scenario is high stakes for this wounded deserter. McBurney, after all, needs to be liked by every member of the school, since any one of them could cut short his recovery or turn him over to the Confederate Army. Colin Farrell gives a deft performance that keeps us from easily settling the matter of whether the solider is a dangerous smooth-talker or likable victim of circumstance.
The Beguiled’s slow buildup of sexual tension ultimately morphs into crackling suspense as a result of the film’s steady insistence on the slipperiness of each character’s identity and the duality of each character’s circumstances—earnest or calculating, threatened or threatening, compassionate or vengeful. It’s a richer take on the “battle of the sexes” than usual: In the world Coppola has created, power and desire are reciprocal, but not symmetrical. The matter of who is most lethal to whom is settled only at the very end. In the meantime, it’s clear that power—to offer shelter or take prisoner, to incite desire or inspire fear, to heal or harm—takes many unstable forms, and none is exclusive to either gender.