A remake of the 1971 film of the same name, THE BEGUILED differentiates from its predecessor by showing the story through a decidedly more feminist lens. Rather than merely painting over the establish structure with a staunch, ostentatious message that detracts from the plot, director Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides) embraces the inequality of the time, flipping the status quo with a firm focus on the female gaze. The result is a slow-burning psychosexual drama that doesn’t just reboot the original: it completely reinvents it.
Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the film opens on a young girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), exploring the woods behind her girl’s finishing school, in the Confederate heartland of Virginia. While picking mushrooms for dinner, she finds a man, caked in blood, mud and other substances, propped up against a tree. Even at her age, Amy knows that his blue uniform means that he’s a Yankee, but in his state he’s clearly no threat to her. Identifying himself as Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), the Union soldier uses his soft Irish brogue and charming manners to convince Amy to take him back to her school for medical attention.
After some convincing, and a reminder about their Christian duty to turn away no man in need, headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Dabney (frequent Coppola collaborator, Kirsten Dunst) reluctantly agree to take McBurney in until his wounds heal. Afraid that one of the regular Confederate patrols may discover the Union soldier in the school, they lock him away in the music room, partly to keep him from the eyes of the soldiers, partly to keep him from the eyes of the students. Each of the five remaining girls – not to mention Martha and Edwina – are taken by the handsome man in their midst, particularly Alicia (Elle Fanning), whose emerging womanhood is begging to be acknowledged. Tensions mount, rivalries beget rifts, and the psychological repercussions of sexual repression are laid bare.
Working much closer to Thomas Cullinan’s book, “The Painted Devil”, than the more male-centric Eastwood adaption, Coppola (who also penned the script) puts focus firmly on the arising tensions in the house, and cuts out any unnecessary melodrama. Being lit entirely by candles and natural light, courtesy of Director of Photography, Phillipe Le Sourd, each scene cuts a striking contrast between the warm glow candlelight, and the long, creeping shadows that surround it. Coupled with the period-accurate score arranged by Laura Karpman, this eerie, Gothic setting perfectly captures the feel of the time, and more importantly, the tone of the film.
The sexual energy exuded here is palpable, purely for the female gaze, and excellently sets the table for the events that follow.
The original 1971 version saw Clint Eastwood as a fox in the Farnsworth School’s hen house, using his smooth chest and the girl’s lack of male contact to pursue relationships with several of them, until their jealously inevitably erupts. The entire film reads as a cautionary tale as to the dire consequences of scorning women, but it’s told through a firmly male gaze. Aligning the viewer with Eastwood’s soldier, many of the scenes objectify the women in the same way McBurney does, with lingering shots of erect nipples and bare behinds, and as such, the fallout from his philandering is presented as the vindictive actions of bitter women.
While the remake follows the same basic events, small changes in direction and performance lend a drastically different tone to key scenes. The relationship between John and Amy, for instance, is displayed as much more innocent than the original (in which Eastwood kisses the 12 year old to distract her from alerting a passing patrol), utilising Farrell’s dynamic charm to elicit a relationship based on companionship, rather than the exploitation of a young girl’s sexual confusion. These subtler, more layered performances that Coppola wrings from her cast ensure that when McBurney eventually cries foul, and starts throwing accusations left and right, it’s much less clear if he’s right on the money, or just a bratty little boy throwing his toys out of the pram because he’s not used to feeling powerless.
The most drastic alteration – and the one that most distinguishes this version – is the shift in sexual agency. Where before McBurney was a horny soldier who’d been given the key to paradise, now he resembles more of a fish in a bowl; trapped in the music room, immobilised by his injured leg, watching helplessly as a parade of girls ogle and objectify him to their heart’s content. This subversion is no more apparent than in an early scene in which John has just been brought to the school, wounded and dirty, and Miss Martha has to clean him. The camera lingers on his sweaty, muscular chest for so long it’s almost obscene, and Kidman’s hands tremble as the washcloth drifts ever closer to his nether-region. The sexual energy exuded here is palpable, purely for the female gaze, and excellently sets the table for the events that follow.
Intently focusing on the psychological dynamics in the house has inevitably led to some elements of the previous film being left out, including a tense scrap with Confederate soldiers, and Miss Martha’s chequered backstory. While the removal of these scenes don’t detract from the quiet, inhibited tension that Coppola shoots for, a more noteworthy omission is that of Hallie, the house’s slave. Woven into the fabric of the original, she was responsible for several important moments (farmed out to either Martha or Edwina here), and added an important layer of context to the film. As such, her absence feels like a missed opportunity; not only to address the presence of slavery, but also to explore the ways in which the slaves’ sexuality and agency were also repressed, and the parallels that could be drawn to the central themes of the plot.
The passive aggressive interactions between the women form the basis of the comedy, deriving the biggest laughs from the smallest moments.
From charming his way into the house via a cutesy interaction with Amy, to feigning ignorance of how melodic his pronunciation of Martha’s name sounds, Farrell initially imbues McBurney with much softer edges, lending credence to the ease with which the ladies of the house begin to fall for him. Equally, when things begin to go wrong, and the girls begin to fear him, Farrell makes this easy to believe – stepping out of his harmless and humble persona as slickly as a snake sheds its skin; exposing the drunken, abusive rage that is bubbling beneath.
While the unpredictable soldier offers both sexual energy and dramatic tension by the spadeful, Coppola makes it inescapably clear that the ladies are front and centre for her interpretation. To that effect, the passive aggressive, oftentimes snide interactions between the women form the basis of much of the comedy, deriving the biggest laughs from the smallest moments. One such scene emerges early on, in which McBurney, having partially gained Martha’s trust, is invited to dine with the girls. The awkward silence that ensues when each of the girls – including Edwina – turns up clearly dressed to impress, pointedly underlies the subtle manner in which the film mixes its comedy into the more sinister plot elements. Fanning is particularly instrumental to this, as her teenaged desire to be seen as a woman epitomises playing with fire, given that she repeatedly dares this older man, who is a stranger and an enemy combatant to boot, to meet her advances.
On the other end of the spectrum from the children who are so liberal with their affections, the adults show a little more reserve, at least to begin with. Kidman’s uptight Martha is driven by her matronly sense of duty towards the Edwina and the students, and as such, her knee-jerk reaction is to turn McBurney out the second his injury heals, yet soon finds herself making excuses to keep him around. Her struggles to rationalise continually putting her girls in danger, while still staving off her own desires, are well contextualised, and buried beneath layers of repression and hypocrisy. Lacking in that sense of responsibility that Martha bears, Edwina much more readily accepts John’s affection, desperate as she is for anything that will bring excitement into her life. Dunst perfectly matches Farrell’s slick charms – at first with meek naivety, but, as events turn sour, her frustration boils over, exploding out in surprising and satisfying ways.
Although the removal of the slave character is controversial to say the least, the material that remains has been so deeply expanded that it’s hard to imagine how the element of slavery could have been properly introduced, without the film ending up feeling too bloated. By focusing on the interactions between her characters, and ramping up the tension inch by inch, Coppola ensures that the payoff in the final minutes feels natural and well earned. Leading a cast of highly skilled actors, the second woman ever to win the “Best Director” award at the Cannes Film Festival has more than earned her title, with this sinister, sultry and delightfully sassy thriller.
Verdict: 5/5 Paddles
The Beguiled begins screening in selected UK cinemas from July 14th 2017.