Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Sophia Coppola
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard.
For her sixth feature film, Sophia Coppola (Lost In Translation, etc) remakes the 1971 southern gothic western that was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood, who had achieved international fame and success in the Sergio Leone directed spaghetti western trilogy. Based on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Painted Devil, The Beguiled was the third of five films that the pair collaborated on (after the westerns Coogan’s Bluff and Two Mules For Sister Sara), but this was a non-traditional western and Eastwood was cast against type as the masculine hero. Although Siegel considered it the favourite of all his films, it remains one of the lesser known films in Eastwood’s canon.
Coppola has adapted the screenplay, which was originally written by the blacklisted poet the late Albert Martz (who also wrote Two Mules For Sister Sara for Siegel and Eastwood) and Irene Kamp, albeit under pseudonyms. Although she remains faithful to the source material, she brings a different sensibility to the material. She eschews the more overtly masculine touches of Siegel’s film for a more restrained, subtle and sensual approach, and gives it a more feminist slant. The film explores universal themes of lust, desire, sexual repression, power, denial, female empowerment, sexual politics, and the changing dynamics of male and female relationships.
The film is set in Virginia in 1864, three years into the Civil War that divided America. Colin Farrell (The Lobster, etc) steps into the Eastwood role as John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier who is given refuge at a female boarding school run by the formidable Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). He is discovered lying in the woods by one of the students who is out picking mushrooms. The prim and reserved Miss Farnsworth decides to demonstrate Christian charity and let him regain his health before turning him over to the Confederate army. Reminders that the war is waging not too far away can be heard with the dull boom of cannons in the background, and the passing presence of Confederate soldiers.
There are only five female students and two teachers in the school which seems to have somehow been largely untouched by the war. They live in isolation, largely cut off from the world outside which is changing and they are trying to cling to the vestiges of their crumbling way of life. But his presence unleashes a flood of jealousy and repressed sexuality, particularly from lonely spinster teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), who is looking for an emotional connection, and precocious but virginal 18-year old student Alicia (Elle Fanning, recently seen in The Neon Demon, etc).
The girls dress in their best clothes, and hold formal dinners and musical evenings. For his part McBurney is the only male in this female bastion of decorum and learning, and his roguish good looks and charm soon weave their spell on the females. He tends the garden while he recuperates. But sexual tension simmers away as they flirt with the wounded soldier. The playful flirtation soon gives way to darker emotions and carnal desires. But is McBurney manipulating the girls or are they subtly twisting him to their wiles? His presence is the catalyst for what follows.
The Beguiled is a stylish melodrama and visually stunning production full of longing and dreamy visuals. It has been sumptuously shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds, etc), who brings an almost ethereal quality to the visuals, particularly with the exterior shots where sun dapples through the trees and lights up the antebellum porch of the school and the woods are surrounded by mists. The beautiful, evocative and atmospheric cinematography will remind many of the Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock as well as Coppola’s first feature The Virgin Suicides, both of which dealt with a loss of innocence.
The production design from Coppola’s regular collaborator Anne Ross is also very good. The interiors have an almost claustrophobic feel, and are drenched with an almost palpable smell of sex and lust as complex emotions broil away just below the surface. Stacey Battat is another regular Coppola collaborator, and her costumes also reek of period authenticity. Coppola won the Best Director award at Cannes earlier this year, only the second female filmmaker to do so.
Coppola has assembled a good cast that also includes rising young Australian actress Angourie Rice (The Nice Guys, etc) in a small role as one of the younger students. Kidman has an icy demeanour and starchy quality as the controlling Miss Farnsworth. In her third film for Coppola, Dunst brings a sense of repressed passion to her performance as the spinster Edwina. Fanning is overtly sexual as the conniving and narcissistic Alicia. For his part, Farrell brings charm to his performance as the flawed and enigmatic McBurney in the early parts of the film and he is not seen as threatening or sexually aggressive. He also brings a hint of vulnerability to the role. It seems that Coppola is unusually sympathetic towards him and his plight. A couple of the secondary characters however remain rather underdeveloped and have little impact on the material.
The Beguiled is tastefully done and languidly paced, as Coppola’s measured direction creates a gradually unsettling air of uneasiness and mistrust. And while the sexual tension simmers away, it never quite boils over into full blown bodice ripping melodrama.