Directed by Sofia Coppola
Screenplay by Sofia Coppola
Cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd
Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Colin Farrell
Film Review by Euan Franklin
It’s easy to treat remakes and sequels with contempt, and, more often than not, it is justified. Often you grow to accept the factory system and understand why producing terrible remakes of classic movies will guarantee a gullible audience. It is bizarre, therefore, that indie director Sofia Coppola decided to retell an obscure New Hollywood exploitation movie from the ‘70s. Who, outside of a band of film devotees, has even heard of The Beguiled?
Set in the woods of Virginia, three years into the American Civil War, a 12 year-old attendee of the local Seminary searches for mushrooms and stumbles across MacBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union Army soldier. She carries him to the Seminary. The other female attendees and teachers are sceptical about helping him, considering his uniform, but the matriarchal Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) allows him to stay and rest until he’s healed. Before long, the sweet-talking soldier ingratiates himself within the household and causes friction among the women.
In the original, Clint Eastwood’s McBurney is clearly the hero and his is the perspective we are told to trust. The story was from a novel by a male author, adapted by male writers, and made by a male director. The Beguiled was liberating in many ways, but the curse of the Male Gaze is still strong enough to make the women into monsters. Coppola tells the story with a more enlightened approach, subverting it not only to better humanise the female characters, but to consecrate them into being the focus of the film. It’s not about how McBurney uses the situation to his advantage, but how the women deal with this new, attractive male presence after years of managing without one. In shifting perspective, Coppola has brought modern values to a period drama. What was justified in 1971 is violently unfair in 2017.
Coppola rejects Don Siegel’s pacy, cinema-verité approach and replaces it with a sense of calm – allowing the story to unfold slowly like the sea before a wave. Many character conflicts are removed in order to maintain this polite serenity, including the controversial exclusion of a black female slave. Some of the harsh historical context is lost, and it was a risky decision for Coppola to make, but it does create a tighter focus on the main characters. Coppola is patient – she makes the film feel more natural, emphasised by Philippe Le Sourd’s realistic manipulation of period lighting. The visuals remind you of Sven Nykvist’s work with Ingmar Bergman, or Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous efforts with John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. And the strive for naturalism allows for more subtle performances from Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning – where even the confrontations are quiet. At times, the stunted pace dismembers some of your engagement with the story, but the characters feel more genuine as a result.
With this toned-down remake, it’s as if we’re watching a grown-up version of the original. Siegel threw in lesbian fantasies, incest, and a 41 year-old Eastwood making out with 12 year-old Pamelyn Ferdin, but Coppola disposes of these and proceeds with a more mature approach. The characters feel human instead of being reduced to stereotypes, and although we lose some of the thrill of the original, we gain a subtle, intelligent drama. That’s why it’s difficult to critically compare the two – it’d be like comparing Cries and Whispers with Easy Rider. One thing is for certain: those film devotees will never watch the Don Siegel version in the same way again.
Watch the movie trailer for The Beguiled below...