When Clint Eastwood starred in the 1971 Don Siegel drama The Beguiled it was a means of changing up his persona, showing that the action hero could play a leading man who literally drives women to madness. The film is dated fun today with a cult following, but was a commercial flop upon release. Over forty years later director Sofia Coppola has reconfigured the narrative with her female-focused take on the story that’s as beautiful and vibrant as her past works. The Beguiled is a film entrenched in Coppola’s aesthetic and yet marks a departure and maturity for the filmmaker, with shades of Terence Malick coloring her worldview. Beautifully acted and gorgeously filmed, The Beguiled is impossible to ignore.
In the waning days of the Civil War a young pupil of the Farnsworth School for Ladies finds a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). Taking pity on him, she brings the man home where the female denizens are desperate to see him on his way. As the man becomes entrenched in their lives he threatens to destroy everything.
Coppola’s interpretation is a worthy, and downright necessary, achievement in comparison to the original. Where the original was an early critique of second-wave feminism bathed in an unwavering adoration and elevation of its leading man as a sex god, Coppola takes a nuanced and modern approach.
Her Corporal McBurney, played with appropriate sensitivity and duplicity by Colin Farrell, doesn’t set out to get into the Farnsworth women’s petticoats. An immigrant who took an opportunity and was unclear of the consequences, McBurney takes the nice guy approach towards convincing the women into letting him stay. Where Eastwood’s general sexuality made the female characters to go weak in the knees, Farrell’s McBurney hones his personality towards pleasing each of the women in different ways. To little Amy (Oona Laurence), who found him in the woods, he’s a fun playmate and father figure; to the repressed teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) he’s a dashing hero straight out of a romance novel; for the school’s headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) he’s a capable man who provides companionship. When things eventually go awry his kindness turns to indignation leading the audience to question who’s truly in the wrong.
Coppola’s script asks the audience where good intentions end and cruelty begins, a theme previously seen in The Virgin Suicides, The Beguiled’s closest companion. McBurney is described as “the enemy” by Miss Martha, but the girls within the school slowly come to question whether their own confinement is part of the problem. Told to stay within the school grounds – presumably for their safety due to roving soldiers – the Farnsworth school is beautiful but claustrophobic. Coppola, a mistress of showing isolation in opulent settings, gives the girl a beautiful gilded cage exquisitely composed by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. Hidden behind heavy wrought-iron gates, the Farnsworth school feels like a Faulknerian house of sirens. Bathed in candlelight, the Southern Gothic influence is keenly felt, with Coppola capturing the increasing sexual tension amidst the darkness of the stoic plantation house.
The Beguiled is a story of sexual awakening and what happens when desire, and the proper codes of conduct to express that, clash. The limited cast gives the film a stagebound vibe as each of the girls’ play off their peers and teachers. Laurence, Angourie Rice and newcomer Addison Riecke are future stars in the making. Laurence bears the brunt of the narrative, finding McBurney and learning about adult tempers. She’s a tomboy with shades of Anne of Green Gables within her. As the resident tart Alicia, Elle Fanning segues from playing a daughter in Coppola’s 2010 drama Somewhere into a blistering nerve of sexuality who’s fun and meddlesome.
However, it’s impossible not to be seduced by the subtler acting styles of Kidman and Dunst. As Miss Martha and her protege, Edwina, Kidman and Dunst bring gravitas to the project. Acting as a foil to Farrell’s McBurney, there are questions about whether Ms. Martha is a villain herself. Kidman emits an understandable and protective forthrightness that’s understandable and stifling. As she slowly grows to trust McBurney there’s a lingering sexual tension that Kidman contains without letting it bubble over. Tempering things is Dunst’s Edwina, continuing to do some of her best work under Coppola. Dunst’s Edwina dreams of being taken “far away from here” not unlike Dunst’s predecessor, Lux Lisbon.
At just 94-minutes the film moves so swiftly that the characters lack the ability to transcend the screen. Everything seems to live and die purely on the screen, lacking that sense of history the original had. Though Coppola’s past films have all been in the 90-minute range The Beguiled would benefit from an additional 15-20 minutes, if only to give the females added backstory and chances to bond. Once McBurney is introduced the film becomes a breathless race to get the ladies to love him and detest him. There aren’t many moments of quiet interaction between the females that isn’t focused on McBurney. We’re told the girls have been there awhile, but outside of their clearly defined personalities there aren’t many scenes of them interacting in a way that doesn’t benefit McBurney or the turn against him which is necessary to understand their reasoning in the third act. In comparison to the original film the fact that Coppola gives the female’s history is a marked improvement, but it only makes you crave more.
Furthermore, their isolation leaves them in a vacuum. Gone are several scenes from the original film of them interacting with wandering soldiers, making McBurney a necessary evil as well as showing the true horrors of being a woman in wartime. Ms. Martha’s sensitivity towards others not knowing of their existence – mentioned in the narrative – almost implies deleted scenes to give that statement weight. If there’s a longer cut of this out there, I’d be eager to see it.
Coppola’s Beguiled is about first love, first heartbreak and how the two help each other in each measure, a wonderful piece of entertainment that illustrates Sofia Coppola can direct more than clothes and scenery. Her characters, though not as rounded as they could be, are fleshed out more than they were in the ’71 film. There’s a nuance and sensitivity to all of them that makes the film less of a Grand Guignol vanity project. For those who enjoy the original this is a unique and refreshing take. Those who want to enjoy Coppola’s work will be surprised by her maturity. And those seeking a fun time are in the right place!