I’m not going to get into another discussion about how frustrating it is when a filmmaker remakes a well-regarded film, and then all people do after they watch it is compare it to the previous work. Presumably a filmmaker like Sofia Coppola (who also wrote the adaptation), saw the 1971 Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood film (or more likely read Thomas Cullinan’s novel) and saw an opportunity to tell this Civil War-set story in a way that had not been done prior. She’s not just tracing over the original with a new cast. Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) has spotted a way she can change the emphasis while remaining faithful to the source material, and the result is a tense, electric, riveting work anchored by some of the finest performances I’ve seen all year.
The 1971 version of The Beguiled is one of my absolute favorite Eastwood films because it came at time when he rarely played vulnerable. And while for most of the film, he dominates every scene, he’s still injured to the point where he needs the assistance of a group of women occupying a Southern girls’ boarding school that has seen better days. Siegel’s movie is an exercise in control, seduction and temptation, most of which is supplied by Eastwood’s Northern soldier who has been severely injured. But in Coppola’s take on the material, Corp. McBurney (Colin Farrell, using his real-life Irish brogue appropriately since many immigrants were paid to take the place of rich men on the battlefield) is more of a gateway drug for these women and girls.
Whereas Eastwood provided the male gaze from which the story was told originally, Coppola’s The Beguiled is more about the women, and how McBurney’s presence in their school triggers dreams and desires (not all of them sexual, but some) within a few that they had long since pushed aside when the war between the states began. Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the head of the school, who seems the most aware of the true dangers of having a man, any man, in their presence. But she’s also a good Christian woman who agrees that the best course of action when the Corp. lands just outside of their fence is to heal his wounds and then turn him over the Southern forces. As she gets to talking to McBurney, she sees his potential as both a handy person to have around the property, an intellectual equal, and a good conversationalist.
Farrell’s work here should not be undervalued. He makes subtle adjustments to his personality with each new woman or girl he comes into contact with. For example, with the girl who found him in the first place, the young Amy (Oona Laurence from Pete’s Dragon), he appeals to her as a friend and confidante. But with the older Edwina (a transcendent Kirsten Dunst), he spots in her both longing and frustration for a different life. She makes the mistake of letting him know that she dreams of leaving the school—and likely the South—for a better life elsewhere, and he urges her to think of him as her ticket to exactly that life. In many ways, Edwina is the centerpiece of the film and the character with the deepest arc as her emotions are run ragged by both the Corporal and the other women.
After playing a host of more sensitive characters in recent works, it’s fun to see Elle Fanning take a crack at a more traditional dangerous woman character. Her Alicia more overtly throws herself at McBurney, not necessarily because she’s attracted to him but because she’s bored and looking for a little excitement. She’s either doesn’t see or doesn’t care about the dangers associated with stirring things up among the women in the school.
Although the film is set during the Civil War, the events inside the walls of the dilapidated estate feel as removed from the battles outside as you can imagine, even though there’s a constant, faint rumbling from faraway cannons. The curtains throughout the house are always drawn, even during the day, creating haunting lighting opportunities for Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (who recently lensed Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster), taking full advantage of a great deal of candle and natural lighting, adding an extra layer of eerie to this Gothic tale.
Certainly the idea of a having a group of laced-up, frustrated women all quietly fighting over which one gets the full attention of a handsomely rough soldier is the stuff of many a bodice-ripping romance novel, but Coppola (who won the Best Director prize at Cannes this year) doesn’t let us off that easy. This version of The Beguiled is about turning the tables and making the women just a little bit more aware than this would-be playboy. Enough of them have his number to thwart him before any real damage is done, and if you know this story at all, you know a couple things about how they deal with his deceit and treachery.
The film is smart, subtle, quiet and, above all, remarkable in its patience and pacing. The slow unveiling of how life in this fragile place will be maintained is both clever and brutal—two more words that accurately describe the movie. It’s also proof that Coppola is getting bolder and better with each new work, with a fierce devotion to not repeating herself in terms of subject or tone. This is one of the finest works of the year so far, and I highly urge you to make room for it before the big movies swallow it up.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.