The Beguiled is an atmospheric melodrama directed by Sofia Coppola which tells the story of an injured Union soldier during the Civil War who is cared for by a group of girls at a boarding school in rural Virginia. The film is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. Both are based on the 1966 novel A Painted Devil written by Thomas P. Cullinan. Though the films share a nearly identical plot structure, Coppola’s vision reveals some key differences which emphasize her own worldview.
Perhaps the most significant distinction in Coppola’s adaptation is the heightened sympathy with which the female characters are treated. While the 1971 film centered around Eastwood’s character (the original trailer describes the women with words such as ‘possessive’, ‘vindictive’, and ‘violent’), the 2017 adaptation treats the young girls as victims of their environment and relatively helpless characters. Though jealousies do push the girls to act out, their motives are painted with an understanding brush. The Beguiled chooses to explore these jealousies as a part of growing up in a country ravaged by war. It is obvious that none of these girls have any substantial experience around men and as the newcomer becomes more involved in their lives they slowly realize the damage that their sheltered lifestyle has done to them.
The performances really enhance the subdued tension that the viewer senses throughout the film. Colin Farrell’s performance as the injured Corporal John McBurney alternatively portrays his character as likable and generous and then frustrating and selfish. Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha, the middle-aged woman running the boarding school, is protective and overbearing but without the vilifying “possessiveness” of Geraldine Page’s portrayal. Kirsten Dunst plays a young teacher who seeks love and an escape from the seeming imprisonment of the boarding school in the war torn countryside. Elle Fanning plays a young school girl who is tired of learning “lessons” and wishes instead to explore the sexual feelings that she is developing, especially with a man now in the house.
Coppola visually explores the era and environment in which her film takes place. It feels remarkably of its time and the camera, along with the story and characters, moves slowly through the world that The Beguiled occupies. The plantation-style southern house is lit in the evenings by an eerie candlelight which lends the film a feeling of gothic horror that serves to heighten the slow-building tension. Sparing but revealing interactions throughout hint at the intentions of the characters without ever revealing anyone’s deepest movies. The film is sparse when it comes to exposition and is meticulous in selecting where it will be visually graphic.
The film’s score left me somewhat wanting. The use of low, monotonous sounds rather than a traditional score gave the feeling that Coppola wanted a more naturalized audible spectrum but was nervous about moving away from a score altogether. The biggest compliment that I can pay to the film’s score is that it was not distracting. That said, Coppola does make solid use of diegetic music via the practice sessions of the girls. These moments contribute to the authenticity and atmosphere of the film and give the characters the opportunity to interact with each other largely without dialogue.
I’m not sure whether The Beguiled will stand out as one of Sofia Coppola’s best few films, but it is a strong showing nonetheless. Its script is tight and its pacing is flawless. The 93 minute run time flew by as no scene sought to waste a moment. Ultimately The Beguiled is a film that will be remembered as brilliantly acted and beautifully muted notwithstanding its tense atmosphere.