THE BEGUILED – Review by Cate Marquis

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Sophia Coppola’s atmospheric period thriller THE BEGUILED is a re-make of a 1971 psycho-sexual thriller starring Clint Eastwood. Coppola re-frames the Civil War story from a woman’s viewpoint, where a wounded Union soldier is taken in by a house full of Southern women and girls at a young ladies’ boarding school in the rural South. What looks like a sexual fantasy come true for the soldier turns out less than dreamy. Continue reading…

Set during the waning Civil War, the film begins with a young girl picking mushrooms in the woods who suddenly comes across a wounded Union soldier. Cpl John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is handsome and young with a lilting Irish accent, and when he begs her to help him, Miss Amy (Oona Lawrence) take pity on him. She brings him to the all girls’ boarding school where she and four other students live under the care of their teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the headmistress of Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. The stern headmistress/owner, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), is angry that Amy has brought an enemy solider into their midst but reluctantly agrees, in spirit of Christian kindness, to care for him until Confederate troops can take the prisoner off their hands.

The basic outlines of the story are much the same as the Eastwood film, directed by Don Siegal from a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan, but the tone is very different. Siegal’s film is an overheated tale of sexual repression and revenge in over-the-top in a style typical of its era. Eastwood plays a lying seducer whose presence sparks heated desire in the women but their lust turns to rage as each discovers she is not the only object of his attentions. There are themes about incest, same-sex attractions, even pedophilia, in this stew pot of the forbidden.

All that B-movie stuff is gone in Coppola’s pared-down story. The film has the look of a historical drama, with moody Gothic beauty. The nature of the characters also are greatly changed, refocusing the story on women’s restricted roles in 19th century society rather than on sexual repression. The girls’ school seems a bit seedy in the earlier film but these are poised Southern belles in this film. In Coppola’s film, all is prim and proper on the surface but the wheels of the mind are turning underneath. In Siegal’s film, the women are simply driven mad with repressed sexual desires, some forbidden, but in Coppola’s film, their motivations are more complex and even calculating.

Where the 1971 film looked a cheap and cheesy, Coppola’s remake is lush and beautiful, set in a stately mansion surrounded by leafy grounds and filled with lovely period details. The graceful plantation house suggests an antebellum South apart from the Civil War raging around them. No wonder it looks like a bit of heaven to Farrell’s wounded Irish-born Union soldier.

These are genteel young ladies but they are feeling the weight of social isolation as well as fear of the war. Colin Farrell’s Cpl John McBurney is handsome and sports a winning Irish brogue, along with a charming manner. His status as a prisoner drifts towards guest.

In this corseted, proper world, who is being beguiled is the question – the young soldier or the women? It is as murky as the battlefield. Manners are observed, grace is said with every meal, prayers said before bed, and French verbs are conjugated. The social graces are carefully maintained but without men, the flirtatious Southern belle skills are getting out of practice. McBurney moves between being a fox in the hen house and a captured animal at their mercy.

The school’s remote and hidden location, in the grand plantation house that once belonged to Miss Martha’s father, protects the all-female household from the war raging around them but imposes an isolation that weighs heavy on them all female world. At first, McBurney is treated as a enemy prisoner, closely guarded and scorned, but in time, the young man’s good looks, gentlemanly manners and sweet charm soften their hearts. Soon each one is striving to catch his eye, and sexual tensions and jealousies arise.

While the presence of a handsome, mannerly young man brings out a competitive side in all of them, the individuals see him in different context. For Amy, Cpl McBurney is a father substitute. For other girls, he represents a chance to practice the art of flirting, or in the case of Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning), the art of seduction. For Kirsten Dunst’s resigned Miss Edwina, he represents a chance to escape her fate as an unmarried school teacher.

The key strength to this film is in its cast. Dunst is excellent in this part, undergoing a transformation from a sad, hopeless being to a woman invigorated by suddenly seeing her last chance at life. Kirsten Dunst is excellent as the head teacher, a woman chafing to escape her likely fate as an unmarried woman, who are relegated to minor roles in a society in which a man is required for social freedom.

The biggest character changes from the earlier film are to McBurney and Miss Martha. Colin Farrell delivers one of his best performances as McBurney. Farrell has the right degree of too practiced charm and youthful appeal, giving the impression of a man who knows he must depend on the kindness of these strangers and yet is confident in his ability to win over women. Farrell’s soldier is a newly-arrived Irish immigrant who took $300 to join the Union Army in another’s place. He knows nothing of the causes of the war, and just simply regrets his decision.

Nicole Kidman is likewise perfect, as the strict headmistress Miss Martha. In the earlier film, the character is a dumpy, repressed prude with a sordid past. Kidman transforms her into an elegant but strong woman trying to make the best decisions for her charges. She is wary and strict, and there is much emphasis on prayers, but when she relaxes later in the film, we see an educated, even worldly woman, as she recalls her days as a Southern belle.

Elle Fanning plays a budding seductress, a Lolita-type who wants to practice her skills on this one available man. That he is young an handsome are bonuses.

The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point. The soldier is with the Union army but as newly-arrived Irish immigrate, the North-South divide over slavery is foreign to him.

If you loved the lurid, pulpy Clint Eastwood one, you probably won’t like the changes Coppola made. Some viewers might want it to be more of a bloody slasher (as the movie trailer hints) and less a cool-toned historical psychological thriller which plays around with repressed 19th century gender roles, which is what it is.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.