THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.
The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made. It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school. Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.
The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.
In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms. She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate. And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.
But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much. As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build. Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him. Even young Amy is attracted to him.
And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.
For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina. But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.
Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.
THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at. Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight. There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.
But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles. The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.
It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me. I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored. The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.
As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan. Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be. In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure. Is he playing these women or not? Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.
In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.
Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman. She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school. But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie? Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life? The film isn’t clear.
Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John. And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.
But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here. Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie. Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school. And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.
As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances. He was too calm and relaxed throughout. The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all. Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late. He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic. Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.
In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent. The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.
That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.
THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.