The Beguiled **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Sofia Coppola.
Written by: Sofia Coppola based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Corporal McBurney), Nicole Kidman (Miss Martha), Kirsten Dunst (Edwina), Elle Fanning (Alicia), Oona Laurence (Amy), Angourie Rice (Jane), Addison Riecke (Marie), Emma Howard (Emily).
The Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood version of The Beguiled is a fascinating movie – a Southern Gothic horror film really about a group of Southern women in the Civil War who take in a wounded Union soldier, nurse him back to health, project their own feelings onto him, and then torture him when he doesn’t live up to their standards. From the start of that film, you know that Eastwood’s character is a liar and a conman – but it’s not like the women in the film are all that much better, as they gleefully head towards the climax. For the most part, Sofia Coppola’s film follows the same sequence of events – it excises an incest backstory of one character, an interlude that felt rather rape-y and eliminates a slave character altogether (a move that some have criticized Coppola for – but I don’t have much of a problem with, as Coppola herself has said, she isn’t the director to tackle a subject like that). And yet, it’s an entirely different film, with an entirely different tone. Coppola continues to be fascinated by groups of privileged women, hidden away from the world, and the havoc that can cause. The Beguiled is more of a genre piece than she’s done before, but it’s clearly a Sofia Coppola genre piece.
In this version, the Union solider, Corporal John McBurney is played by Colin Farrell – who is pretty much perfectly cast in the role. He has, at many times in his career, been cast as much for his physical presence as his acting abilities (in film like Terrence Malick’s The New World or Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I’d argue, more for the former, than the later) – and he puts both to great use here. He is wounded in the forest, when young Amy (Oona Laurence) finds him, and brings him back to her school for young girls, where the headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman) can nurse him back to health. Most of the young women have left the school – but there’s a few left, alongside their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). McBurney wants to know if there are men around – there aren’t.
Throughout the movie, McBurney subtly reads each of the women, and what they want from him, and responds accordingly. The Siegel/Eastwood version makes everything much more explicit through dialogue, where here, it’s mainly done through meaningful glances. Farrell wonderfully changes facial expressions – softens or hardens it, changes his tone of voice, depending on who he’s talking to. He says little to any of them – promises nothing until late in the movie, and yet they all read into him anything they want. The main female characters are Martha – the one with the complex backstory excises, although Kidman is a brilliant enough actress to suggest so much, with so little – the aging matriarch of the place, who sees McBurney as a potential man of the house. Edwina is the teacher, who is living out her prime “marrying age” with all the men off to war, who almost melts with a few kind words. The oldest student is Alicia (Elle Fanning – adding another great performance in a young resume full of them) – whose teenage sexuality is dying to get out, but doesn’t have an outlet – who sees McBurney as a potential plaything – and a way to turn the rest of the women – both younger and older – into playthings as well. Young Amy may see McBurney as more of a father figure than anything else.
The film was shot in a large house in New Orleans, and is the type of film where you can feel the humidity coming off every frame, The cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd (stepping in for the late, great Harris Savides, who shot Coppola’s last two films) is superb. Coppola doesn’t quite go over the top like Siegel did (most notably in a strange montage) – but she walks up to that line. The film is wonderfully fun – especially watching the women as they exchange so much information between them without saying a word. The film works as an extension of themes that Coppola has always explored, and at the same time as a thriller, and at times even a comedy (not a laugh out loud comedy per se – but I did have a smile plastered on my face the entire last act). I said of the original Beguiled that it raises more questions than it answered – and the same is true of this film, which doesn’t really seek to answer anything. In both cases, that’s a strength of the film, not a weakness.