Movie Review: The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola revisits a Civil War sex drama to undress gender differences as she casts Colin Farrell as a ‘the corporal’ in this elegant dissection of desire
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Running time: 1 hr 33 mins
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
They were ‘man-hungry’ in the 1971 original: A pent-up clutch of girls and matrons trying to survive the Civil War in their small little Southern schoolhouse when a handsome interloper appears and starts tearing their hidden Eden apart.
Director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood played to notions of libidinous female hysteria, earning them a dis from late-great Judith Crist, who called it “a must for sadists and women haters.”
Sofia Coppola’s remake is already being hailed as a feminist victory since it earned her the best director prize at Cannes in May. So what’s the big difference between these two films spun 46 years apart?
They are based on the same source material: Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, and Albert Maltz (John B. Sherry) and Irene Kamp’s (Grimes Grice) adapted screenplay.
It is not a complete rewrite from a female perspective the way Margaret Atwood reimagined The Iliad as The Penelopiad, or even the new take on Ophelia slated to star Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts. Coppola takes a credit as “written for the screen by,” but for the most part, these are the very same pieces. The story is certainly the same, so is much of the dialogue. The differences start with the casting. Nicole Kidman occupies the role of school marm, Martha, once played by Geraldine Page, who in 1971 was fresh off a horror lead in What Happened to Aunt Alice? Kirsten Dunst takes on the part of Edwina, a woman on the verge of becoming a dreaded ‘spinster’ now that all the boys are dead or at war. And Colin Farrell digs his spurs into the character of Corporal McBurney, the Yankee soldier that challenged Eastwood’s image as a good guy just before he became Dirty Harry.
Every actor brings a particular piece of luggage with them if we’ve watched them long enough, which means Coppola fills her frames with a very different set of players. We don’t see Kidman as a sexual write-off. Kirsten Dunst doesn’t feel desperate. And as handsome as Colin Farrell may be, we don’t immediately assume he’s going to be a hero. He’s got that dark edge that only makes him sexier, his characters more complex.
Coppola makes the most of these unconscious feelings by letting them create a subtle foundation of suspense from the opening frames, when we see little Amy (Oona Laurence) foraging for mushrooms in the forest. It’s the preferred fairy tale place for little girls to lose their innocence, and that’s eventually what happens when Amy spies McBurney lying half-dead near a tree, and decides to take him home.
It was the Christian thing to do, and the ladies talk a good religious line as they discuss whether they should turn him in to the Confederate Army to become a prisoner of war. But we can see they’re truly beguiled.
Martha cuts his clothes off and stitches his wound. Edwina sees a man like her, a lost soul in search of a home. And Elle Fanning’s lusty ingenue character just sees a man.
As in the original, sexual desire is turning all the wheels, but Coppola’s whole style and approach to filmmaking is an exercise in sensuality more than anything sexy.
Through her female set of eyes, landscape and character often merge. Her wide frames keep people small enough to stand in the company of others, and the lighting is natural, warm — one might even say fuzzy.
These women may be seeking something from McBurney, but it’s a lot more complicated than a roll in the hay. Coppola finds the dimensions of each character’s emotional needs with little more than long takes and a sparing use of close-ups.
Once we feel their silent suffering — and perceive their limitations not just in the situation, but in the world at large — we can feel a shift in empathy.
Coppola plays it like a violin, a full bow of the emotional strings punctuated by a solo note vibrato. The entertainment comes from the resulting symphonic effect of all those feelings in the same pit. It’s more of a mood sometimes than a movie — which is one of Coppola’s great gifts as a filmmaker.
Sometimes feelings are too murky to name, too ugly to reveal, or too unconscious to properly process. Coppola doesn’t try to sift through it and impose a sense of clarity or order. She just lets the images and feelings vibrate long enough in our minds to leave a lasting impression, and a mood that may be hard to describe, but proves haunting all the same.
THE EX-PRESS, June 30, 2017
Read Katherine Monk’s Movie Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and right here in the Ex-Press archive.