Editor’s Note: The Beguiled is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
In Sofia Coppola’s (The Bling Ring, Somewhere, Marie Antoinette, Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides) Palme d’Or’ winning sixth film – not counting 2015’s made-for-Netflix A Very Murray Christmas – The Beguiled, the second adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel (the first, released in 1971, starred a Don Siegel-directed Clint Eastwood), a semi-dilapidated boarding school for affluent Southern girls keeps the omnipresent Civil War at bay, lingering outside the gates of the school, until they discover a badly wounded Union solider on their grounds, setting up the first of several conflicts, beginning with whether they should turn him over to Confederate troops to be imprisoned or executed and ending with a different kind of war, not between armies or states, but between men and women, between a toxic, manipulative masculinity, and a no less complex, problematic, femininity that can be just as arbitrary, cruel, and capricious.
While Coppola’s name above the title all but promises swapping out the traditional male gaze for a female gaze (a definite plus), it doesn’t guarantee that The Beguiled won’t feel redundant in comparison to Siegel and Eastwood’s 46-year-old collaboration.
Coppola’s adaptation swaps the setting from Mississippi (Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s adaptation) to Virginia, but more importantly, it moves the year from 1863 to 1864, less than a year before the end of the Civil War. Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies has seen better days, but all of the servants and presumably the slaves – Coppola has justifiably received criticism for deliberately erasing the novel’s lone African-American character from her adaptation and with the erasure of that character, the fundamental reason, slavery, for the Civil War – have fled or relocated to parts unknown. While the sound of cannon shells exploding in the distance remind Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the only other adult at the school, and the girls who remain of the war’s inexorable approach, Miss Martha, an authoritarian at heart and in practice, refuses to change or alter the school’s prewar routines (e.g., meals, lessons, prayers), both to keep the girls occupied (and under control) and to reinforce a sense of normality, no matter how hollow or ultimately futile that pretense toward normality proves to be.
The unexpected, and at least at first, unwanted, arrival of Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier, throws the delicate, fragile balance between and among Miss Martha, Edwina, and the girls into almost immediate disarray. The girls range in age from the naïve, innocent preteen Amy (Oona Laurence), who finds McBurney while she’s out collecting mushrooms for the school’s meals, to Alicia (Elle Fanning), a hormonal teen that can’t help but see McBurney as a sexual object. She’s not alone, however. While the Miss Martha initially treats McBurney with an icy, dispassionate attitude, she’s not immune to McBurney’s physical charms, especially after she takes charge of bathing McBurney in the early stages of his recovery. The sexual/romantic interest in McBurney extends to Edwina, the closest to an age-appropriate partner for McBurney at the school.
Even Philippe Le Sourd’s soft-focused, naturally lit, awards-worthy cinematography, Phoenix’s expertly deployed, minimalist score, or A-level, never-better performances from a note-perfect cast aren’t enough to elevate The Beguiled into an essential film.
While Coppola’s name above the title all but promises swapping out the traditional male gaze for a female gaze (a definite plus), it doesn’t guarantee that The Beguiled won’t feel redundant in comparison to Siegel and Eastwood’s 46-year-old collaboration. Coppola’s European Art Cinema-inspired directorial choices intentionally drain the tension, suspense, or even the melodrama found in Cullinan’s novel or the Siegel-Eastwood adaptation. Coppola’s preference for long, lingering shots, as well as holding onto scenes long past the delivery of dramatic text or context, adds an oneiric, even fairy-tale quality to The Beguiled, with McBurney representing a threat to a sexually repressed, repressive matriarchy, but a matriarchal structure firmly tied to a centuries-old, Southern patriarchy. That he represents the enemy, ideologically and gender wise, is no accident. It makes the answer to the first question, “What do with McBurney?” all but inevitable.
Coppola’s adaptation hews closely to Cullinan’s novel, up to and including the ending that turns on McBurney’s libido-driven miscalculation, betrayal, and an ambiguous decision by Miss Martha that can be read multiple ways. That’s all to the good story wise, but a quieter, more restrained approach to the material, essentially taking the “melo” out of “melodrama” feels primarily like a superficial quirk rather than an indispensable, vital decision necessary to deliver a different, more resonant adaptation. Even Philippe Le Sourd’s (The Grandmaster, Seven Pounds, A Good Year, Peut-être) soft-focused, naturally lit, awards-worthy cinematography, Phoenix’s expertly deployed, minimalist score, or A-level, never better performances from a note-perfect cast, however, aren’t enough to elevate The Beguiled into an essential film, let alone an adaptation on par with Siegel’s collaboration with Eastwood.
Despite gorgeous cinematography and an almost fairy-tale-like approach to the Thomas Cullinan classic novel, Sophia Coppola's adaptation of The Beguiled fails to impress.