Quick Take: Set against a haunting and ethereal backdrop of Southern Gothic beauty, with plumes of smoke and echoes of cannon fire in the distance; Coppola’s macabre, darkly sensual drama plays out within the walls of an antebellum homestead and is the brutally winding tale about the consequences of f*king with the wrong set of females.
Grade: B – (barely)
Sofia Coppola’s latest, The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film (depending on who you ask, they might say flop). The premise is relatively simple, mundane even. It’s the Civil War in Virginia, and a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney, fleeing – insert deserter here – a nearby battlefield gets discovered in the woods by a young girl and taken back to the mostly deserted all-girls charm school where she resides. Upon their return, this sweet-faced manipulator convinces the headmistress that it wouldn’t be the “Christian thing” to turn him over injured; so, these loyal Confederate daughters decide to harbor him…just until he’s well.
This waffling over permitting his presence in their home continues – with ever more ridiculously convoluted reasoning tossed about – as this soldier slowly, but surely, gets a read on the personalities of the home’s cloistered female inhabitants.
He cultivates his young savior Amy (Oona Laurence), charms her youthful classmates Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard) each in turn, accepts the brazen advances of budding seductress Alicia (Elle Fanning), woos their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) with avowals of love, and plays coy with their headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) dangling helpful male companionship just out of reach.
He’s a gorgeous, charming man – we are talking about Colin Farrell speaking with his Irish accent all over the place – alone in a house full of females (of varied ages) who’ve been sequestered as a consequence of war. They’re all coquettish and intent upon capturing his attention in some fashion or form.
Colin Farrell’s McBurney is equal parts compelling and hawkish. His enticements and lures are believable – because of his face if nothing else – and fuel audience belief in the utterly girlish (no it’s really not a compliment) responses to his presence. I can’t think of another actor who would have anchored this roll as well and kept it from coming across with such a heightened creep factor that overshadowed all else.
The tension simmers and smolders as McBurney gaslights each child or woman, expertly. All is well until things are decidedly not well and the ladies find themselves facing an enraged McBurney stripped of all artifice and out for vengeance.
The Beguiled is an intense tale of the vagaries of pride, and a coming of age story overrun with psychosexual behavior. It’s an allegorical examination of the test of one’s will and survival instinct you could say. But it’s not without its issues…
There’s a point in the 1971 film where a drunken and enraged McBurney threatens to drag house slave, Hallie, off and “try his luck,” a tidy (censor friendly) euphemism for raping a black woman. In the Coppola version, not only is this scene excised, Hallie is as well. In her absence, the care taking duties are split between Miss Martha and Edwina – because that would’ve been likely during this period in the real south…not.
Keeping such a scene (and this character) between McBurney and Hallie – it didn’t necessarily have to be reverting to the belabored rape trope – would’ve drawn the threat he posed to their persons fully into the open and increased the tension at the dangerous shift in power dynamics. Without it, the sense of threat thickening the air is severely lessened. It casts their actions and choices in the film’s climax more as spiteful rather than self-preserving.
One of the major failings of the Coppola version is Edwina, played by Dunst. This character is horribly under developed and lacking in depth. Another drawback of Coppola’s short-sighted decision to cut out any people of color from her story; Edwina’s backstory is essentially lost.
Edwina should be a mixed-race woman. I’m not being PC here, I’m stating fact. In the novel by Thomas Cullinan, he’s very clear about the teacher’s ethnic origins. It’s what sets her apart from the other inhabitants in the school. It’s the justification for why she’s treated as less than by her students. It’s why the headmistress frequently makes pointed remarks about her background in front of the girls as though she exists to be an exemplar to judge themselves against.
Coppola retained all of these other character elements but didn’t even bother to make any attempt to anchor them in some personal history as they relate to the Edwina character for Dunst. As a result, her portrayal of the woman just makes her appear weak and is patently empty in the end.
Coppola had the opportunity to highlight the inner-gender power dynamics at work in this house and weave those threads into her greater story arc in a way that would’ve added nuance, angst, foreboding, and explained the feelings behind Edwina’s choices and actions.
Instead, she chose the coward’s way and failed both the character she did create as well as the purported focus on gender-based power dynamics as the underlying theme of the film.
Her poor excuses for removing black women from her film lessen The Beguiled in a way that sullied its value for me. I’m delighted to see a film set during the Civil War that doesn’t wallow in the obvious themes of the era.
I’m dismayed that a filmmaker of Coppola’s caliber believes that including the black women who would’ve (and should’ve) been present (and how they would’ve existed) in this period piece exploring male/female and female/female power dynamics of the time (it’s 1864 in case you were wondering) isn’t work worth doing or considered a relevant and important story component.
The Beguiled isn’t a bad movie; plenty of people will respond positively to its languidly gothic sensibilities, Colin Farrell’s skillfulness, the young girls’ portrayals of the various stages – and incumbent attitudes – of maturing females and Kidman’s stoic restraint and refined demeanor. It handles its themes in ways distinct to Coppola’s directing style and is on that level way successful; but it could’ve and should’ve been better.
Sofia Coppola chose a revisionist lens out of a sense of self-preservation and that just smacks of disrespect to me. It had a decidedly noticeable detrimental effect on the overall emotional depth of the movie and compromised my ability to identify with many of the actions and ultimate decisions of its characters – and it wasn’t just because they’re white and I’m not. Vital character building blocks are missing.
Less, isn’t always more – especially when you’re talking about people – but I doubt it’s a lesson Coppola’s bothered to learn or take into consideration when deciding what or who has permission to exist in her reality.
Kudos to Coppola for choosing to re-imagine The Beguiled as a study in gender-based power dynamics but it’s nowhere near as powerful or meaningful as it could’ve been.
Overall Rating: 2.75 out of 5