The Beguiled, 2017.
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola.
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, and Angourie Rice.
At a girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War, where the young women have been sheltered from the outside world, a wounded Union soldier is taken in. Soon, the house is taken over with sexual tension, rivalries, and an unexpected turn of events.
This may be a controversial opinion, but if something different isn’t going to be attempted with a remake, then it’s not worth remaking under that filmmaker’s vision, and I like to think many others would also rather watch an auteur stamp their own perspective onto a film instead of simply retelling events for a modern audience fascinated with the latest special effects. Director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Bling Ring) has done just that with The Beguiled, originally a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood that essentially portrayed the male character as more of a victim than anything. Some would argue it was misogynistic filmmaking standard for the time period, which renders Coppola’s take on the material more than just an updated version; it’s another reminder (and how fittingly appropriate coming off the heels of the outstanding Wonder Woman) of how far society, specifically speaking here female representation in cinema, is progressing despite occasional setbacks here and there.
As the above synopsis mentions, the lives of an all-girls seminary is thrown for a loop when Union Corporal John McBurney (Irish-accented Colin Farrell) is found fled from battle and wounded in the woods by young Amy (Oona Laurence, the most underappreciated child actress working today once again tackling a challengingly complex role) on her mushroom-picking route. Although John fights for the enemy (the women reside on a Confederate plantation), the ladies take him in and show hospitality by nursing his injuries. However, suffering from loneliness, sexual repression, sexual awakenings, and an overall sheltered lifestyle due to the men off fighting in the Civil War, the females begin to develop various relationships with the soldier, whereas he unashamedly begins to manipulate them back for his own lust.
There isn’t so much a plot to The Beguiled, but rather a collection of scenes (coupled with gorgeous scenery and ravishing costume design) designed to allow audiences to slowly worm their way inside the head of each woman. Given the most dramatic and complex arc, Kirsten Dunst’s Edwina is unhappy living at the seminary and teaching the children, showing great interest in riding off into the sunset with John once his leg has properly healed. Due to John’s habit of helplessly flirting with other girls at the school, including a 17-year oldish Elle Fanning (another supremely talented young actress always game for richly mature subtext) as Alicia who is a likely virgin clearly swept off her feet by this handsome battle-scarred warrior (her attempts at charm both in wardrobe and dinner-table small talk is cutely funny), this doesn’t end well. Then there’s headmaster Martha (Nicole Kidman delivering a very restrained but layered performance), who is unable to resist turning John over to Confederate allies after giving him a bed-bath. Not to mention the younger children that grow platonic friendships with John that also end disastrously.
Up until this point, The Beguiled may seem like the total opposite of feminist filmmaking, but it’s the necessary portrayal for demonstrating how slimy and deceitful John behaves. Plus, it’s impossible to place all of the blame on the women considering that all the men are off fighting. To John’s defense, a home where every adult woman in sight wants him sexually must feel like heaven after nearly dying in combat. Still, his actions are reprehensible, and how the women deal with his betrayal after tensions boiling over to the point where they nearly turn on each other is nothing short of locked-in, female empowering craftsmanship. Some will come away finding the ending anticlimactic, which I suppose is fine, but it’s actually perfect; these women have intelligence and deadly precision. Sofia Coppola hits the bullseye thematically with an unforgettable ending.
With that in mind, now is the perfect time to address the controversy surrounding The Beguiled. Yes, there are no slaves on the plantation (there is an offhand remark about why), and everyone has a right to interpret that creative decision however they want. However, those refusing to watch the film under the impression that Sofia Coppola is racist are absolutely letting social agendas get in the way of critiquing the film for what it is. The Beguiled is also a Civil War movie without any combat, but who cares? Coppola wanted to remake The Beguiled as a gender politics study reversing the motives of the lead male character, paving the way for a darkly rewarding feminist experience. She succeeded; this movie does not exist to make a political statement on race or slavery.
Sure, it’s a little slow during the opening act (the film notably unravels like a stage play) and the characterization of some of the women could be more fleshed out considering the only woman that truly goes through a devastatingly emotional arc is Edwina. Outside of that, The Beguiled is an admittedly slow burn where Sofia Coppola has her finger on the pulse of each moment with laser-focus on the overall canvas. Even as it mixes genres ranging from drama/comedy/pulp thriller, she never loses sight of the poignancy of her socially relevant Gothic potboiler.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★