Nicole Kidman’s stunning performance of a Civil War-era headmistress subverts the tired trope of a shrill schoolmarm. If only director Sofia Coppola's erasure of slaves didn’t ruin it.
In the shady folds of a Virginia schoolhouse lives a cluster of Southern belles whittled to their barest form—parched dresses, tight braids, shadow-pale skin. The Civil War rages around them, cannons singing like cicadas through the kudzu, soldiers marching past the iron gate with their bullet-speckled Yankee prisoners. Surreality is the new normal. The slaves have run off, the men are dying in fields just beyond the Spanish moss, and yet the girls linger on, resuming daily habit, reciting chalkboard lessons and prayer, cross-stitching, practicing piano. They are ghosts of an era that’s just about spent, little Miss Havishams in Antebellum lace.
Sofia Coppola all but paints filmstrip to life. In The Beguiled—her remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film, both adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name—she renders the war-ravaged South in a dreamy pastel haze. Curtains and fabric and ribbon linger in the frame, adding texture to the shadows, and glamor to the grotesque. The grounds of Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies are a boiling pot of pubescent female vanity and wayward dreams. A breeding ground, one might assume, for tempestuous emotion and charbroiled hormones. We have come to understand—through a patriarchal reality that wills it, and fiction that persuades it—that women are always ready to annihilate each other.
But Coppola doesn’t play it easy, and that’s made very clear with the introduction of our matriarchal lead, Miss Martha the headmistress, played with a fascinatingly even hand by Nicole Kidman. Miss Martha, unmoored by a war that both robs her of status and situates her as a de-facto mother hen, is not at all what I expected. So primed I’ve been by stern literary school misses—Miss Minchin, Miss Trunchbull—that I was prepared for something bitter and poison-tongued. But Miss Martha is neither. She’s something else, something hard to name because I’m not sure I’ve seen it before, not in a film tinged with gothic unease and the lull of horror. She’s fiercely protective of her brood, including the young students and a teacher named Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), in a way that never feels disingenuous. There’s a complexity to her actions, but the love of her girls is quiet and intrinsic in a way I’m fairly confident no man might understand or adequately translate.
In a world full of Kellyanne Conways and Ivanka Trumps—high-power white women who hang to the pretenses of feminism while they silently corrode it—I’ve grown disillusioned by female guardianship figures. As fake news grows systematic of our fracturing times, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to assess the intent of these women. Perhaps it’s because, culturally, we’re conditioned to dissect our own while dangerous men float by unscathed. Take, for instance, the constant dressing-down of Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and even Hillary Clinton by women writers and fellow celebrities. It’s not that these women don’t deserve the prodding—because of course they do—but the scale is weighted toward their missteps, while high-profile men, like Michael Fassbender, Bill Murray, and Al Gore, all with sordid histories of abuse and misbehavior, are beloved and routinely unquestioned.
That’s why my initial hesitation about Kidman’s Miss Martha felt like a slap as the story moved past a perceived chilliness and right toward a character built on the foundation of love for her ilk. It was apparent right away in her response to the arrival of Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier her student Amy finds in the woods and brings to the school. Martha doesn’t yell at or reprimand Amy for her actions. Instead, she calmly ticks through ideas of what to do, before the girls decide together to tend to the man. Because, as Amy says, it’s the “Christian thing to do.” It’s a small but simple delight, to see women work together so easily, free of the drama the situation might otherwise provoke. In Siegel’s version, for instance, Miss Martha (Geraldine Page) is more fraught, barking at the girls, chastising Amy for wandering out of line and putting them in danger. Coppola’s change is subtle, yes, but it reverberates throughout the film, with all sorts of little moments altered to show a very different Miss Martha, a woman who isn’t compromised by war so much as she’s enlightened by it.
Film is as responsible as the real world in teaching us to regard fellow women with our guards up. Think of the chambered high school halls of Heathers, Clueless, Jawbreaker, and Mean Girls, where female animosity is a currency. Battles are waged in the name of cafeteria hierarchy, and male attention is a trophy. Think also of the ballet world of Black Swan, or the Broadway of All About Eve, where grown women are locked in industry rivalries with younger, prettier, “better” versions of themselves. Ryan Murphy struck gold with FX’s Feud, an anthology series that’s first season catalogued the infamously fractured relationship between Golden Age Hollywood stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Reality series like Bravo’s Real Housewives pit drunken, affluent suburban moms against one another for laughs. There’s an entire bustling industry built on a thirst for female contempt.
But the claws-out device is only true in spurts. Yes, teenage girlhood is fractious and waged, but the obsession with cat-fight culture seems like a laboriously male take more often than not, a misinterpretation of the complexities of female relationships. Even when it’s real, it’s often provoked by the presence of men, or the way women expect men to enter and influence the narrative. That’s why Coppola and Kidman’s spin on Miss Martha feels quietly revolutionary. It’s not spelled out in bold letters, but worked into movements and interludes. Her hands on a young girl’s shoulder, in her lap, on her head. Her arms as battened hatches around her students when McBurney’s temper boils over. We think of gothic moms as horror figures—Pamela Voorhees, Margaret White, Norma Bates, even Kidman’s own icy turn in Park Chan-wook’s Stoker—not protectors. Ready to rip us apart, not hold us together.
Of course, the idea of Miss Martha as an idealized maternal figure is complicated by the absence of a key character in Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s adaptation: Hallie, a slave. Coppola’s decision not to include Hallie was largely and rightfully controversial, as it effectively erases race from a story set in the Civil War-era South. Coppola’s excuse for removing Hallie – “Young girls watch my films, and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them” – was derided by fans and critics, who’ve stressed that removing Hallie not only robs a young black actress of a role, but also sanitizes a war fought over the ownership of black bodies. The excuse the movie gives for the absence of slaves – simply, that they “left” – is equally baffling. Where did they go and did they leave without a fight?
I also wonder if Hallie’s absence was a decision by Coppola to more easily align our sympathies with Miss Martha. In both the book and the 1971 film, Martha is casually cruel to Hallie, speaking to her tersely, the way masters speak to what they own. And of course she would, this is the Antebellum South, after all, and Martha was brought up with fanciful provisions and the myth of Southern status. It would be emotionally dishonest to include Hallie and portray her as an equal, but might muddle our feelings about Miss Martha if she was protective of her white girls and nasty to her slave. I don’t know that Coppola made the right decision—there’s much to mine in the dichotomy of Martha’s many selves, and I would welcome a female character less easy to root for—but I see why she did it, even if I disagree with what it implicates. It’s clear what sort of stories Coppola values, and, as critic Angelica Jade Bastién wrote for Vulture, with the absence of slaves, The Beguiled accidentally creates an indictment of white womanhood, “how they use fragility as a shield for deviousness and insulate themselves from the horrors of a world that they too are responsible for.”
And to that end, I wonder if my response to Miss Martha—her warmth and tenderness and lack of judgement in a story that would otherwise demand it—is some gut-response to the America we live in now, free of the female president I expected, free of a First Lady that strives for progress, free of a party that respects the virtues of our bodies instead of the wanton strength of a system they won’t loosen their grips on. Miss Martha’s illusion of the Old South is her failing, but she learns that the hard way, and evolves beyond it for the betterment of the girls she loves. It shouldn’t be some far-off pipe dream to long for someone like her in the limelight, chiseled but malleable when it comes to matters of the heart. Despite her flaws, despite all that we don’t see and know, I can’t help but see her as a fascinating entry in the canon of genre matriarchs, a creature all her own—one willed to life by a director who sees the enormity of woman’s love, how it mends and adapts and safeguards. The fall of the Confederacy is right around the corner. The canons will soon cease. Miss Martha and her schoolgirls will be ready.
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