With the end of 2017 almost here, I’m trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed throughout the year. Next up: The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s feminist reimagining of an old Clint Eastwood movie.
Apply the natural lighting and ambient noise of The Witch to the story of a Civil War-era all girls school being disrupted by the sudden presence of an injured enemy soldier and you have The Beguiled. It’s a film which satisfies at least an academic curiosity since it gives us a case study in how a woman (Sofia Coppola) might approach source material that was originated by a man (Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel) and already adapted for the screen by a man (Don Siegel) in 1971. In fact, that unique opportunity is exactly what drew Coppola to the project. However, her promise to tell the same story from the female point-of-view doesn’t amount to anything as powerful as you’re hoping for.
Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning anchor the cast of sheltered, God-fearing Virginia women far removed from the front lines of the war. When one of the young students discovers Colin Farrell’s Yankee Corporal John McBurney in the woods nearby, the school has to decide what to do with him. In Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s hands, the story plays out from there like a male fantasy about one guy surrounded by a collection of easily seduced, sexually repressed women and little girls longing for a father figure. Coppola shifts the attention to the often subtle effect the man has on the women and uses that to gradually build the tension.
For example, they start throwing the 1860s version of shade at each other for the little ways they change their appearance to impress him, and their morning prayers last just a little longer as they seek help from a higher power to fight off temptation. They could use McBurney’s help around the house and in the garden, and he doesn’t exactly want to get back to the war nor does he even know how to do so without being captured. However, his continued presence puts them all in danger, and while he’s aware of that he’ll do just about anything to stay. Before long, his presence turns threatening, the shift signaled by the moment the film drops its sole reliance on ambient noise and incorporates its first piece of musical score.
The acting is uniformly stellar, particularly from Kidman as the protective, but conflicted matriarch of the group and Farrell as the opportunist who masterfully deploys different tactics with each girl to win over their favor. The ambient lighting techniques lend the film an intriguing atmosphere, and the production design and costuming certainly put us in that time and era. Yet even at a relatively short 94 minutes, The Beguiled feels like it takes way too long to get to its ultimate goal of being a melodrama/horror movie takedown of toxic masculinity. Contrast that with one of 2017’s other feminist revenge fantasies, Lady Macbeth, which is almost exactly as long and takes place in the same era (albeit on a different continent) but is never anything other than riveting.
The 1971 Beguiled is currently on HBO Now. Coppola’s version is available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, Redbox, and all the other usual places.