All images courtesy of Focus Features
One could argue that Sofia Coppola’s remake of THE BEGUILED is a war-torn pastel confection of female empowerment, while others can see it as a jab at women and how easily they can be manipulated by men. The truth of the matter is that neither is right because the movie is a “who’s zoomin’ who?” celebration of scheming for both genders that keeps in the spirit of Coppola’s pensive, atmospheric aesthetic, but is unexpectedly straightforward in its delivery, leaving a craving for more of her nuanced stoicism that we have grown to love — or that has driven us crazy.
Based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan and the 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, the film is set in during the Civil War at a Southern girls’ boarding school. Just an earshot away from the cannon fire and battles, one of the young girls Amy (Oona Laurence) runs into an injured soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) while in the woods. Turns out he is a Union soldier which technically makes him an enemy, but he is in so much pain — and is so dreamy with his Irish accent — that Amy feels that it is best to bring him to the school so that they can tend to his wounds.
Upon arriving at the school, headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is not on board with bringing this Yankee scum into their house. But the girls convince her that it’s the “Christian thing to do” so they bring him in. Practically unconscious, they clean and dress his wounds and figure that it is best that he stay at the house until he is fully recovered.
As he is bedridden, the girls are fascinated and are drawn to him, feeling the need to impress and flatter him. In particular, three of the women fall under his handsome charm. Resident rebel rouser Alicia (Elle Fanning) makes it blatantly obvious that her hormones are raging while Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) sees him as a way out of her dissatisfying life as a school teacher. And let’s not forget Martha. From the moment she gives him a sponge bath, she immediately has to loosen her collar for fear that she was swooning too much at the sight of his manly body.
As the story unfolds, melodrama overcomes the prim and proper school. John’s presence changes the whole dynamic of the school as the girls fight for his attention — mainly between Alicia and Edwina. He’s like a new pet — everyone wants to play with him — but some want more time with him than others. And when they don’t get their allotted time, things get nasty. When the fighting reaches its peak, John gets injured which forces Martha (who is also trying to keep her composure while fawning over John) and the girls to take drastic action — which leads to even more problems as well as a crucial move that will affect everyone.
The film could easily be seen as a situation where women treat each other like crap for the sake of a man. This may have been the case for the 1971 version, but Coppola (who also adapted the script), spins it to where it isn’t a just about a man manipulating women. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The women in The Beguiled are just as shrewd and cunning as the prisoner. With John, there is something untrustworthy about his charm. Whether intended or not, he’s sly with his actions and how he thinks he can control these women. On the flipside, the three main women have their own agendas with John. Martha is controlling — almost dominatrix-like — in how she communicates and treats John. She is in charge and in a very freaky way, John likes that. Even so, she doesn’t give in because the moment she lets her guard down, she knows that John will take advantage. She’s just waiting for the right moment to bring the hammer down. Edwina is probably in the most the most despair of all. It’s obvious that she hates her life and she sees John as an out — but not in a way where she thinks running away and marrying him will solve all her woes. She’s too smart for that. Instead, I picture Edwina running away, marrying him and then milking him for all of his money and leaving him to start live her own life. Then there is Alicia…she’s just horny.
Kidman continues her 21st-century renaissance in this role, which echoes the fragile sternness of her role in The Others. Dunst, who continues to be Coppola’s muse, brings the most to the table as Edwina. She feels like the most fully realized and nuanced character who has a clear end goal while Fanning’s one-dimensional Alicia gives nothing but hormonal teen angst. As for Farrell, he’s adequate. It’s clear that this is not his film to shine and it shows. He knows his place as a male lead that isn’t anything all that special. In a weird, twisted way, he is eye candy.
Coppola’s remake feels different from her other films. There isn’t a quietness and aloofness that we are used to seeing. Instead, there feels like a delicate aggressiveness felt throughout as we see these women try to navigate and figure out what to do with this man. There are plenty of layers to peel away from this story when it comes to gender roles and social status. For one, these are Southern women taking care of a Yankee man. Who has the upper hand here? On one hand, you have these devout women who are probably conservative in their way of thinking. If I had to put money on it, they’re probably racist — if not, they are at least racist-adjacent. Then you have John. Although he is a man, he is an immigrant and is fighting for the more progressive (arguably) side of the war. On top of all that, you have to factor in the role of women during the era and how they were treated and how they should have been treated. There is a certain sense of resistance in their actions involving John and its unapologetic. Nothing really gets answered as Coppola makes you decide who’s in the right for yourself. As for me, the lesson I took away from this whole ordeal is that everyone in this movie was crazy and they made poor life choices that could have easily been avoided.
The Beguiled definitely sticks with you and although it gives you a lot to chew on, it seems very sober. It’s dubbed as thriller but I didn’t feel as much thrill as I wanted. There was no surprising twist nor was there nail-biting excitement. It felt very light and restrained when it should have been unhinged and crazy — which is why I feel like there is comedy lurking in the shadows of all this Southern Gothic candlelight.
The original film was campy (or campy by today’s standards), but with Coppola’s reputation, her version was set up a high-brow film about gender politics set to a Civil War tune. Even if it supposed to be a film of prestige, there feels like there is camp dying to get out throughout the 93 minutes of this movie — it just didn’t lean into it enough.
Coppola definitely knows how to make a beautiful film with a tortured soul and The Beguiled fits into that category well. There is a lot to chew on in this movie, but at the same time it feels more simplistic and not as emo as her previous works. There is a lack of still shots of inanimate objects and not as many scenes filled with poignant silence — which seems to be her trademark. This was replaced with straight-forward storytelling that takes away some of Coppola’s quiet charisma and gives us a revenge fantasy merged with a harlequin romance novel.
Running time: 93 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic