Sofia Coppola’s choice to take on ‘The Beguiled’, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel ‘A Painted Devil’, could be considered a bold move. The novel served as the source material for Don Siegel’s 1971 film, also titled ‘The Beguiled’, with Clint Eastwood taking the lead role. Its popularity is evidenced by its 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating. A classic story about a soldier starring an all-time great film actor.
A simple remake would be drab, especially by Sofia Coppola. To reposition the whole story from the perspective of the women involved is a brilliant move and a gamble that pays dividends. The result is a swirling story of suspicion, falsities and lust that puts the central trio of Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning at the forefront of the repositioned and wholly captivating story, reducing the central soldier figure to something akin to a supporting role.
The film is set in 1964 Virginia, USA, a prominent part of the Confederates States in the American Civil War. A young girl named Amy (Oona Lawrence) from a local Christian all-girls school is out picking mushrooms and stumbles across an injured solider. The man, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is a soldier fighting for the Union Army of the north who finds himself critically injured and behind enemy lines. She decides to help him by taking him back to the school grounds. The head of the school, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), treats his wounds and nurses him back to recovery, whilst teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst) and older student Alicia (Fanning) become immediately interested in this mysterious man who has unexpectedly entered their lives. This is the perfect invitation for McBurney, with little to lose, to begin a charm offensive and attempt to stay at the school and avoid returning to the war.
McBurney may have been reduced to a supporting role, but Colin Farrell makes the most of his screen time to make sure the frenzy of interest is well justified. As in the novel, the character is a man of Irish heritage and Farrell plays on the stereotypes of a cheeky and charming Irishman to great effect. His character needs to stay in the school for as long as possible and he does his best to ensure everyone there doesn’t want him to leave. For Amy he offers a best friend and father figure, for Alicia he offers lust, for Edwina he offers the chance to escape and for Martha he offers intelligent conversation and companionship. This plotting is ultimately his downfall, and when it is abruptly halted Farrell is equally adept at exploding with anger – the juxtaposition against his charm making his performance all the more shocking.
Coppola has crafted a film that lives in a completely different time to that of her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring. It was a move she actively sought to make, that film inhabiting an entirely more ugly modern world of theft, celebrity and social media that marked a departure from the norm for the director. It was a very good film, but was less well received than the likes of Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides; films that have helped define her as one of the most distinctive and identifiable directors in modern cinema. If The Bling Ring failed to speak the language we were used to, Coppola makes sure her voice is deafening in The Beguiled.
It is Dunst that eventually becomes the standout performer in a strong ensemble cast. She has been through a lot on film with Sofia Coppola, from a 15-year-old lustfully oppressed girl in The Virgin Suicides, to a precocious queen in the form of the titular Marie Antionette. In The Beguiled, Edwina is a character that could feasibly be lost alongside strong showings from Fanning and Kidman in roles of women who more clearly know what they want. Edwina is far more nuanced, at a juncture in her life where she feels lost. She is a woman who feels she is losing time and wasting her best years in a place far removed from a life. When Farell asks her what her one truest wish is, she simply responds that she wants to go as far away as she can from her current life. In the end, it was this character that I felt most sorry for, far more so that McBurney or any of the other girls.
For anyone wondering whether or not Coppola had lost her knack after an extremely strong start, a steady middle and a potential blunder in the form of A Very Murray Christmas, you will be pleased to know that The Beguiled is 100% a return to form. It may not go down in history as a great – as is the case with Lost in Translation – but it’s a fine film indeed.
Note: For further reading on Sofia Coppola’s response to controversies surrounding the omission of a slave girl from the original novel, read this article. I don’t see it as relevant to the discussion on the film so haven’t mentioned it in the main body.