Review: “The Beguiled” (2017)

4 out of 5 stars.

It’s amazing what different writers and directors can bring to—or take away from—the same story.  Case in point, “The Beguiled,” a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel, based on a novel of the same name.  That movie, set during the American Civil War, starred Clint Eastwood as John, an injured Union soldier who is taken in by an all girl’s boarding school in rural Mississippi.  John charms the lonely women one by one, until his indiscretions cause them to turn on him, with deadly results.

Sofia Coppola’s remake, which she wrote and directed, follows the same basic premise.  Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the young girls attending the school, finds John McBurney (Colin Farrell), lying under a tree with a wounded leg.  She takes him back to the house, where the headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman), and her second-in-command, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) tend to him.  While they speculate as to whether they should turn him over to the Confederates or let him stay long enough to recover, John befriends them one by one.  The other girls at the school include Jane (Angourie Rice), a talented musician, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a teenager who is bored with life at their isolated school and is intrigued by John.

The Beguiled 2
Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and John McBurney (Colin Farrell)

Coppola’s film is gorgeous to watch, from the sumptuous costumes to the eerily beautiful old plantation home (this movie changes location from Mississippi to Virginia).  Coppola uses a lot of natural light, from outside and from candles, to light her shots, adding to the moody atmosphere.  And the cast across the board is excellent, from the innocent Laurence as Amy to Farrell’s charismatic and nasty John to Dunst’s melancholy Edwina to Fanning’s wily Alicia.  But it’s Kidman who really steals the show here in a performance that is largely calm, but also powerful.  Miss Martha nearly falls into the same trap that the other girls do, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her; she’s smart, and courageous enough to do what needs to be done to protect herself and the girls.

While almost all of the plot points are the same, there are many differences between Siegel and Coppola’s versions of the story.  Siegel’s film was told more from John’s perspective.  The ladies are much less sympathetic.  When characters start to become unhinged, they really do become unhinged, with little restraint.  Siegel plays up the violent and erotic side of the story much more; a few points that are brought up in his film aren’t even a part of Coppola’s, like the incestuous relationship that Miss Martha had with her brother.

Coppola tells her version of the story from the women’s perspective.  In general, everything, from the performances to the story, is much more restrained, allowing tensions to simmer without entirely boiling over.  None of the characters are portrayed as purely bad, or purely good; even Farrell’s John is not immediately as slimy as Eastwood’s was.  Whereas in the original film they were vengeful, and John was their victim, here, the women are John’s victims.  He seduced them, he betrayed them, and now he is threatening their lives, so naturally they will defend themselves.  Their discussion and implementation of their plan to get rid of him is practical but not in a cold way, but it’s still rather frightening how easily they seem to accomplish it.

It is nice to get a woman’s perspective on what is really a women’s story, but Coppola does leave out some important elements in the process.  One of those is a character who appeared in the original film: Hallie, a slave who worked at the school, who John manages to bond with as well.  There not only isn’t any Hallie in this film, there are no slaves or black characters whatsoever.  Toward the beginning of the film, it’s mentioned that all the slaves had left; that would also explain the move in location from the more racially-charged Deep South to Virginia.  That really is a shame, to think that Coppola and her team thought it would be acceptable to almost entirely omit that aspect of the war and of American culture from the story.  The women are so isolated that a character like Hallie could have served as a tie between them and the outside world; she could have also added another layer of depth to the story, to show the contrast between these independent white women and a black slave woman, not to mention whatever dynamic she would have established with John.  It’s a glaring flaw in the film; even if you are not familiar with the original, the line about the slaves leaving instantly throws a red flag.

Outside of that, “The Beguiled” is a solid entry in Coppola’s filmography, a feminist thriller that is surprisingly humorous and provocative (though not in the same way as Siegel’s film) and doesn’t waste a minute of anyone’s time, clocking in at a little over 90 minutes.  Just as the women take control of their situation in the movie, Coppola takes charge here, and brings the focus of the story back to what it should always have been on: the beguiled.

Runtime: 93 minutes. Rated R.

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