The original Clint Eastwood adaptation of “The Beguiled” was a crazed, pulpy drama of sex and temptation. It’s a bit too nuts to take it truly seriously. That’s where Sofia Coppola comes in, whose gifts with minimalism can take even the wildest of subject matter and rope it into something contemplative and profound.
In her take on “The Beguiled,” Coppola has given the Civil War story a dusky air of dignity and style. She’s reframed it as a woman’s story of pent up frustration and emotion and how people cling to certain ways of life, rather than a man’s revenge tale against, as Colin Farrell puts it in the film, “vengeful bitches.”
That’s all well and good, but I like the crazy-eyed sexiness of the Don Siegel/Eastwood version. Coppola’s film has the themes and drama in the right place, but does her “Beguiled” have to be so buttoned up?
“The Beguiled” is set at the tail end of the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school in Virginia. One of the young girls comes across a wounded Union soldier while walking in the woods, and takes him home so the women of the house can nurse him back to health, then turn him over to the Confederate soldiers. His name is Corporal McBurny (Farrell), and he quickly wins the affections of Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the house’s strict but loving mistress, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the quiet and conservative senior teacher at the school who secretly wants to be rid of the place, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a teenage student who immediately struts her sexuality for the far older soldier.
Everything about the original film that’s over the top and zany feels guarded in Coppola’s “The Beguiled.” McBurny treats each of the women with a different degree of affection. He treats Miss Martha with the authority she demands, Edwina with adoration and Alicia with apathy. The gradual flirtations and niceties thrown the women’s way keeps “The Beguiled” tantalizing and focused more on how the women react than on McBurny’s mind games. They’re the protagonists of this story, not him.
And yet it’s almost as if Coppola is afraid to show just how manipulative McBurny is being or just how dangerous and volatile keeping everyone pent up in this sun-soaked, gothic Southern mansion can be. Without getting into spoilers, Miss Martha in the spur of the moment comes up with a plan to subdue McBurny and punish him for how he’s toyed with all the girls. Her line is so simple and delivered without fanfare you might miss just how sadistic it is. And McBurny’s signature line about “vengeful bitches?” It’s merely echoed in the background as the women mull about. These are moments another director would sensationalize. Coppola’s restraint betrays her in “The Beguiled.”
The film’s final shot finds all the women of the boarding school in picturesque framing lounging stiff and tired on the porch. The camera holds back and views them them through the gates, trapped, isolated and away from a changing world and a war about to end. It’s a film about how their sexuality, desires and drives for control, attention and power cause them to act out. These are more themes than Don Siegel’s “The Beguiled” could ever tease out of this source material.
But so much of Coppola’s “The Beguiled” feels confined to the same rigid, traditional world the characters are trying to break free from. It only hints at anything really steamy, lurid or wild. Even the movie is a tease.