We open on black, as we know all important films must.1
When we fade in, it’s on a little girl in a checked skirt, wandering beneath the hanging moss of a long dark tunnel of oak trees. When she gently picks mushrooms from the dirt, we can almost hear their stalks part; so quiet and eerie is the locale.
As remakes go, Sofia Coppola’s version of The Beguiled immediately distances itself from Don Siegel’s lurid Civil War melodrama; instead leaning gently towards an art-house Southern Gothic feel. It’s a case study on how far two films can diverge while essentially depicting the same events. Less stylised, more studied, and notably shorter than its predecessor, The Beguiled (2017) is also far more ambiguous than the underlying, deeply outdated theme of Siegel’s original; that of “the basic desire of women to castrate men”.
When Amy (Oona Amy) brings home not only a basket of mushrooms but a wounded Union soldier, the other occupants of the Virginia girl’s school are understandably taken aback. Corporal John McBurney (a darkly charming Colin Farrell) is the only man that any of them of come in contact with for a long time; apart from the Confederate patrols that occasionally pass by their gates. What’s more, he’s an enemy.
Still, he seems calm, pleasant, courteous. Before passing out, he says that he is happy to be their prisoner; as well he might be.
Enemy or no, the schoolmarm Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), assisted by her students and the sole remaining teacher, Miss Morrow (returning Coppola collabotator Kirsten Dunst) sequester him in the music room, treat and bandage his wounds, and keep him warm and fed; even while agreeing on their attention to hand McBurney over to the troops once he’s back on his feet.
Displayed, if never stated, in looks and glances, small behaviours – like the choice to put on a pair of earrings of favour a slightly more risque dress – all suggest the suppressed desires that threaten to overwhelm the delicate balance of the new situation.
Directed and adapted by Coppola, based on a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinanen, the film strips away the thematic bracken that thicketed the earlier film – incest, slavery, the age of consent – in favour of a reduced power play between the genders.
The film’s tagline of “Innocent until betrayed” suggests a less ambiguous reading of what transpires between the female household and their guest than the film itself suggests. McBurney treats each of the women as individuals, appealing to their private needs – for love, for recognition – with flattery both earnest and discreet. To what extent he is sincere in, say, his wooing self-effacement before the naïve, tremulous Miss Morrow or his admiration of the culture, self-disciplined Miss Farnsworth, is unclear, but the film is sympathetic towards him in this: after all, his survival may well be at stake.
Beyond claims of charity or mercy, there are many tasks on the estate in which a man would be handy and, excuses or not, many reasons to keep McBurney around beyond his recovery. He is only made dangerous and desperate by circumstance – bellowing like a wounded elephant and smashing crockery only when having undergone deepest trauma.
Similarly, unlike the delirious bursts of internal monologue that marked the 1971 version, the film gives us surprisingly little insight into the exact motivations behind the women’s behaviour. Is there more to Alicia (Elle Fanning)2 than just a slightly petulant teenage seductress? What makes the cherubic, all-too-knowing Marie (Addison Riecke) tick? Farrell may be top-billing, but he’s the lead only insofar as he is the focal point.
Kidman, meanwhile, gives a remarkable performance as a woman whose unknowability is fascinating rather than frustrating. Airy without ever being dismissive, cutting but never camp, she hints at a wealth of experience with as small a gesture as a raised eyebrow. How the film plays out, with according to malice or necessity depends entirely on your reading of this character; buttoned-up, perspicacious, and with blood on her blouse.3
Phillipe Le Sourd’s cinematography, characterised by bright, gauzy day and misty evenings, makes the most of the sumptuous setting – a grand antebellum Greek Revival manor – but keeps it firmly in the background. The score by Phoenix, inspired by Montverdi’s Magnificat, is minimalist and ethereal.
The Beguiled (2017) is masterfully disciplined, subtle and compelling; a cinematic consomme rather than the full-blown feast of the original. Enjoy it.
- So says Lego Batman.
- In yet another role as a brazen young woman discovering her sexuality. Still, if The Beguiled and 20th Century Women hold up over the course of the year, as seems likely, she’ll have made my top ten twice this year; not including last year’s The Neon Demon; so she’s definitely choosing the right projects at least.
- SPOILER: Her reading of “Bring me the anatomy book” makes for a line of the year contender.