This review contains spoilers
I think it’s fair to say I’ve had something of a hot and cold relationship with the work of Sofia Coppola, one that has not always been in line with the rest of the critics. I liked her debut feature The Virgin Suicides plenty and like most people I liked her breakthrough film Lost in Translation quite a bit though I maybe don’t quite put it into the same lofty realms of greatness that some of its bigger fans have placed it in. I was not, however, a fan of her 2006 film Marie Antoinette at all and while I haven’t revisited it in a while I don’t think my opinion on that would change much. I got even less out of her follow-up film Somewhere, a film I have actually never finished watching, so I’ll refrain from further comment about it. Oddly enough though, I actually liked her last film The Bling Ring more than a lot of critics did, possibly just because my expectations were maybe a little lower than a lot of people’s. Truth be told, I think the expectation game has frequently worked against Coppola. People expected Marie Antoinette to be an attack on the vapidity of the upper class, it instead ends up being a defense of its protagonist’s naiveté (one that doesn’t even end with a beheading), and people are disappointed. People expect The Bling Ring to be an attack on teen celebrity worship, it ends up essentially being a more traditional look at millennial ennui, and people are disappointed. Coming out of Cannes there seems to have been a similar complaint against her latest film The Beguilled, in part because critics seem to have wanted something a bit pulpier and more outrageous than what we got.
The film is set in Virginia in the middle of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school that has been largely abandoned save for the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), one teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five pupils. One day one of the younger students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is scrounging in the woods when she stumbles upon a Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who is wounded and separated from his troops behind enemy lines. She decides to bring him back to the school and Martha agrees to patch him up and make sure he’s healed before they attempt to turn him in to the local confederates. Realizing that he’s something of a captive McBurney starts angling to manipulate his captors and find ways to endear himself to them. It doesn’t go smoothly.
The Beguiled is an adaptation of a novel called “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan, which more than likely would have fallen into obscurity had it not been previously adapted into a film in 1971 (also called The Beguiled) which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood in the role now played by Colin Ferrell. That original film is not a great film or even a particularly good one so much as it’s an interesting artifact or sorts and it’s not overly popular and is mainly just discussed as a stepping stone in the evolution of Eastwood’s onscreen persona. This would in many ways make this an ideal subject for remake as it isn’t an untouchable classic and there’s certainly room for improvement. On top of that this is a story with a certain set of… let’s say “sensitive themes” which could make for an interesting update. The original film is, after all, the work of two of the most masculine people in film history in Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, the very same people who would later that same year make Dirty Harry. As such it would seem that, in the hands of a director who has been widely praised for adding a distinctly feminine touch to cinema, a remake of such a film would be a noticeably subverted adaptation. There is indeed a little of that here, but I was actually surprised at how much Coppola actually didn’t change.
The crux of what makes this story interesting is that it inverts the usual gender power dynamics. In this house, which seems almost entirely isolated from the outside world, the man present is wounded, outnumbered, and in a position where he’ll be sent to a brutal prisoner of war camp if he displeases the women. In his desperation he’s left with the one option that women are often left with in literature: to use sex appeal as a weapon. McBurney quickly assesses that the women in this school are rather thirsty and quickly engages in a degree of flirtation with them, especially with the relatively age appropriate ones. It’s not particularly clear how much of this macking is done because of his own sexual desires and how much of it is done out of self-preservation but as the movie goes on all the games he plays with these women’s emotions become increasingly high stakes and start to backfire and he eventually tries to take back power in more direct ways, which also backfires eventually. All of this is true of both the 1971 version as well as the remake, the differences are mostly a matter of focus. Specifically the love triangle (love square) between McBurney, Martha, Edwina, Alicia is actually expanded on in the original film and because of this it’s less ambiguous (though not entirely) that Martha’s decision to amputate McBurney’s leg was out of jealousy rather than medical necessity. This subtle shift has the effect of making the movie a bit less salacious and also justifies some of the women’s actions, but also makes the revelation that McBurney is sleeping with Alicia (who’s named Carol in the original) kind of come out of nowhere.
That’s a change but not really a major one. Instead it seems that the appeal here is less a personal or political shift and more just the usual coat of paint that modern remakes of older films are given. Were I of the belief that the 1971 version of The Beguiled were a particularly well-crafted movie to begin with I might have been less receptive to this, but that movie feels less “vintage” than simply “dated.” Coppola ups the production values noticeably for the sets and the photography that she and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd bring to the film is excellent. The movie was shot on 35mm and a lot of the scenes in it are lit by candlelight very effectively. The casting is also an improvement this time around. Clint Eastwood was probably miscast in the original movie and he’s said as much in interviews about it and Colin Ferrell probably works a little better in this role. The women are all a little better here as well with actresses like Nicole Kidman, Kirstin Dunst, and Elle Fanning all bringing a lot to their roles and the younger actresses also doing well in the movie.
The Beguiled is an interesting case in that one’s enjoyment of it will likely be dependent in what you expect from it and your willingness to let it operate on its own terms. Given that this source material with a rather loaded premise that’s rife for dramatic revision I suspect a lot of critics are going to go in expecting something a little more radical and will be disappointed as a result. Those going in expecting something that operates on the same salacious and borderline trashy wavelength of the original film will not really be getting what they want either. This is in fact something a little more straightforward than that: an adaptation that simply discards some of the bullshit from its source material and delivers a better told and more streamlined story and does it pretty well. That’s not something to be completely overlooked and given that this is in many ways the closest that Sofia Coppola has gotten to making a more accessible genre exercise I’d say it’s a step in the right direction.