Starring: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell
Director: Sofia Coppola
Running Time: 94 mins
Synopsis: Virginia 1864. The American Civil War rages on. Secluded from the world lies an all-girls school led by stoic headmistress Mrs Farnsworth (Kidman). Only 4 students and a fellow teacher remain all of whom have barely seen another person since the war started. Into this steps wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Farrell) whom they take in in order to help him. The mysterious handsome man then begins to stir a desire in them all that threatens to turn deadly.
Sofia Coppola has always had a predilection for the female point of view, whether it is the repressed sisters of The Virgin Suicides, the punk rock anarchist of Marie Antoinette or the troubled daughter of Somewhere, Coppola utilises terrific female performers to delve into the complexities that having an X chromosome entails. So it’s no surprise that in tackling a remake of the lurid sleazy 1974 Don Siegel directed picture, itself an adaptation of a Thomas P Cullinan novel, she realigns things in order to offset that films troubling depiction of women as shrill, animalistic monsters. Primarily centred on the male’s perspective in the form of Clint Eastwood’s wounded soldier, it is an interesting film but not particularly balanced in its gender issues.
Coppola’s version instead drills into the women at its core. Holed up in an opulent mansion in the belly of Civil War Virginia, this once thriving all-girls school is now barren, quiet and isolated (a fact exacerbated by Coppola’s consistent focus on the all-encompassing forestry surrounding the building). The men have long gone, either dead at the hands of Union soldiers or still fighting on. The servants have also scarpered (an uncomfortable avoidance by Coppola to mention the malignant slavery of the time). Still headmistress Mrs Farnsworth clings to some semblance of normality by continuing to teach the 4 children left in her keep, aided by fellow teacher Edwina (Dunst). At the films outset one of her charges comes across a wounded soldier. Immediately taking to the mysterious man Amy (Oona Laurence-charming as one of the only real innocents here) helps him back to her school.
Upon glimpsing this handsome, charming fellow each of the women finds a sense of desire awaken in them. Coppola wisely never specifies how long they’ve been without men, but based on their giddy affections it has been a lengthy period of time. As if representing their own forced chastity Corporal John McBurney is swiftly locked away, the closed door a palpable temptation that draws each of the women to what’s inside. Rather than making all of them a broad selection of sex-starved females, each has a different approach and central drive to their natures. As the headmistress Nicole Kidman is caught between her own desires and the need to protect her kin from what could be a threat. Generally a colder presence in films here Kidman is warmly protective and sternly focused whilst mining a deeply buried lust that comes out in kindly welcoming gestures. Although a moment in which she bathes the unconscious Corporal is dripping in erotic tenderness. Elle Fanning plays against type as the sexually voracious Alicia, her blossoming sexuality taking to John with a hungry flirtation that may be too hard for him to resist. Her character isn’t the most original or complex but she conveys the erotic confidence well. The other girls are each beholden to the man but due to their pre-pubescent outlook they are fascinated by him for reasons that aren’t quite clear to them yet.
Kirsten Dunst has the meatiest material though as the repressed Edwina. Reserved, quiet and observant, she suffers most at the hands of the manipulative John, as he attempts to open her up physically and emotionally. Dunst nails the vulnerability, jealously and unpredictability of what desire can stoke in an individual. As the only man in sight story-wise and film-wise Colin Farrell elevates what could have been a one note character into something far more interesting than just a horny male. Fearful for his life (as a Union solider in enemy territory these women could turn him over to what will likely be an execution) he senses their sheltered proclivities and begins to manipulate his way around them. Due to this he remains a little aloof as to his true nature. Whether being respectful to the forceful Mrs Farnsworth, amorously flirty to young Alicia, fatherly to the innocent Amy or hopelessly romantic to the buttoned-up Edwina, he is continuously morphing himself into whatever the situation requires. Farrell remaining engrossing throughout whilst also delivering some much welcomed levity.
In fact Coppola has a delightful playfulness herself, writing in some deliciously funny bouts of innuendo which helpfully break the almost overwhelming tension. She certainly shows her continued skill behind the camera too. Draping her shots in earthy woozy light enraptures you into its brooding mood. Nighttime scenes are bathed in nothing but candlelight emphasising even more the enclosed confinement these women find themselves in. There is a bravery in Coppola’s decision to forgo a score for almost all of its running time, instead events are soundtracked by the heavy breathing of its central women, the gentle sounds of nature or in one metaphorical moment the noise of bandages being ripped and made sounding more akin to the bodice-ripping of the later sexual encounters. Coppola drapes the feeling of sensual fascination over everything.
Alas now I have to detail how disappointingly this well-made and beautifully acted film ventures into territory that it cannot quite handle. Having all this bubbling sexual tension clearly means that something will inevitably implode, wherein all these fleeting looks, acts of carnal desire and jealous in-fighting combine to deliver some story fireworks. This tension snapping moment, and subsequently the film after it, veers heavily into operatic melodrama, involving violence, guns and screaming. Strangely though Coppola keeps it all feeling dramatically low-key. Characters becoming more broadly monstrous creatures (Farrell especially) making excessively harsh decisions but the film never knowing whether to keep things slight and subtle or loud and crazy. Instead it falls into a weird middle ground that never truly comes alive. The original Beguiled handled this better as it maintained its sense of lurid insanity throughout, subtlety being left very much at the door. This Beguiled certainly gets its women right and finds deeper realms of thematic subtext, but in trying to merge the two aspects of its sources’ personality it becomes hopelessly conflicted. A shame because for its first two thirds The Beguiled is a rather apt title, but come the last act The Bemused would suffice.
Verdict: Rich performances, bold direction and a palpable mood give The Beguiled an evocative engrossing vibe before giving way to a final act that fails to marry subtle subtext with its more outlandish plot turns.