In 1971 the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood Civil War drama “The Beguiled” was written off as “heavy handed,” “funny when it shouldn’t be, sentimental to a fault.” The story of a wounded Union soldier convalescing at a Southern girls’ school didn’t find an audience in North America but was a substantial hit in Europe.
Forty-six years later Sofia Coppola’s remake of the overwrought story grabbed the attention of a European audience, wining Coppola the Best Director Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Whether the film, which stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in the roles originated by Geraldine Page and Eastwood, will be a hit on these shores remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, the damning reviews from 1971 are unlikely to be repeated.
Coppola has taken the simple story, toned down some of the lurid aspects of the take to create a film that corrects the knocks against Siegel’s version. The director’s touch is lighter, the laughs are earned and has replaced the sentimentality with subtlety.
It’s 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War. Farrell is gravely wounded Union deserter Corporal John McBurney, an Irish charmer, fresh off the boat who took a payday of $300 to fight in a war he didn’t understand. Discovered by Amy (Oona Laurence), a young student at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, he convinces her to help him. She brings him to the white columned school where the headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Kidman) and teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) make a fateful decision. Sensing he will die soon they patch him up. If he lives they’ll turn him over to the first passing Confederate Army patrol. If not they’ll bury him. It is, as they say, “the Christian thing to do.”
His presence causes quite a stir in the house. Despite initial misgivings the residents of the house fall for McBurney’s charisma. At first its subtle—they start dressing nicer, wearing necklaces and pins that haven’t been taken out of the jewellery box for years—the flirtations increase during his convalescence. A profession of love to Edwina sets in motion a series of events that leads to betrayal and a life or death decision.
Coppola’s telling of the story takes its time establishing the atmosphere inside and outside of the Seminary for Young Ladies. As the war rages on around them, the teachers and five students (Laurence, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke and Emma Howard) are sheltered, self-sufficient. They study French, learn to do needle point and become proper ladies. But life during the Civil war has also exposed them to the harsher realities of life. The younger ones may look like giggling schoolgirls but even they are no strangers to the dangerous vagaries of life during wartime. Coppola establishes their ecosystem and deftly displays the subtle changes that occur with McBurney’s arrival.
Removing the pulpy aspects of the story, Coppola is able to focus on the characters. Kidman is terrific as the pious but protective headmistress. A woman who could have been played as a one note straight and narrow caricature—all Southern charm and clasped hands—is instead given layers as the situation spins out of control.
Dunst is the model of repression while the younger actors are given distinct personalities from the bratty—Fanning and her devious grin—to sweet to infatuated. It’s a showcase for each and every one of them.
Farrell plays McBurney as a kind-hearted rapscallion, a man who can’t help but be charming. With sly wit and an even slier grin he is at once a welcome guest and a menace.
“The Beguiled” is an interesting and entertaining feminist take on a story that in the past was played as a sexualized fantasy.