Film Reviews

The Beguiled

Published July 15, 2017
Colin Farrell treads a tightrope on one leg among Miss Farnsworth's ladies

It was a novel experience last week to see Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, followed a few days later by Eleanor Coppola’s Paris Can Wait. Eleanor is the wife, and Sofia the daughter, of the more famous Francis Ford Coppola, but the entire family seems to have cinema in their DNA. In 2013, grand-daughter, Gia Coppola, made a creditable directorial debut with Palo Alto.
The only family I can think of with a similar mania for movies is the Makhmalbafs of Iran. Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the best known, but his wife, Marzieh, and daughters Samira and Hana, have each directed full-length films.
For Eleanor Coppola it has taken a long time make a first feature, and Paris Can Wait is a consummate piece of wish-fulfilment. It’s a middle-aged woman’s fantasy of being driven through France by a charming, romantic Frenchman, seeing the sights and stopping for fabulous meals, while her husband is working in another city. That’s almost all there is to the film – a work of hard-core food porn that seems to have been devised in collaboration with the French tourist bureau.
Eleanor’s long-awaited debut may not be profound but it’s enjoyable in a frivolous way. It’s one of those movies that critics hate and audiences adore: a hymn of praise to the haute bourgeois lifestyle that inspires twinges of envy and vicarious pleasure.
Sofia’s The Beguiled is altogether more engaging. It’s a problematic film but easily her best effort since Lost in Translation (2006). Of the three intervening features, Marie Antoinette (2006) was une catastrophe royale; Somewhere (2010) a failed attempt to bring Antonioni to Hollywood; and The Bling Ring (2013), a pretty modest affair.
Although it’s based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan the real template for The Beguiled is Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Indeed, Coppola has said she wanted to make this movie over again from a female perspective.
This drove me straight back to the Siegel version to see what masculine sins it had committed. While there was a vague suggestion that the women were all castrating bitches and man-eaters, it was chiefly a reminder of what a very good, underrated director Siegel was. Despite a whiff of misogyny, the earlier movie loses nothing in comparison with the remake. In changing the perspective of the story Coppola has radically simplified it, removing contextual references to the Civil War; a black slave who played a crucial role in the first film; and an incest theme that provided a great, shuddering dollop of Southern Gothic.
The bones of the tale remain unchanged. The setting is Virginia in the midst of the Civil War. A little girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) is foraging for mushrooms in the woods, when she stumbles across a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell). Overcoming her initial shock, she helps him back to home base: Miss Martha Farnsworth’s seminary for girls, where she is one of only five remaining pupils, residing with Miss Farnsworth herself (Nicole Kidman), and her assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
The women decide to do the Christian thing and shelter the enemy soldier, Corporal John McBurney, until he is well enough to leave. This leads to a predictable rise in tensions, as the presence of a handsome man in a house of women brings out all kinds of forbidden desires and rivalries.
Corporal McBurney is ambiguous figure – less of a cad and a liar than in the Siegel version – but still willing to turn on the charm in an opportunistic way. Farrell’s Irish accent, with its hint of blarney, is perfectly suited to the task.
As the emotional temperature keeps rising so does the sense of foreboding, but to say more would be to say too much. Coppola has eliminated a lot of gratuitous detail and subplots, but could be accused of indulging in style over substance. Where Siegel had his schoolgirls dressed in rough clothes, working in the garden, Coppola makes them into virginal waifs in frothy white skirts. Elle Fanning, who plays the young sexbomb, Alicia, looks almost too laid-back to make an effort. Jo Ann Harris, who played the same role in Siegel’s film was openly lascivious.
It seems that Coppola’s “female perspective” simply means that less is said, and more left to the imagination. The Civil War recedes into the background but McBurney’s presence elicits the same steamy passions. Nicole Kidman’s Miss Farnsworth is less manic than Geraldine Page’s version, and Kirsten Dunst tries to keep a poker face in the role of Eliza, even while falling for the Corporal’s banter.
Coppola’s minimal, subjective approach succeeded well enough to win her the best director award at Cannes this year, but she concentrates all her efforts on atmosphere and psychology. The Civil War seems insignificant alongside the war of personalities in the household.
As a director Coppola is self-conscious to the point of mannerism, teasing out every nuance in the way the characters relate to each other in this claustrophobic, jealous, little world. Her severe refinement makes Siegel’s approach look crude, yet one misses the earthiness of that earlier film. In Coppola’s hands the drama unfolds as if in a dream.

The Beguiled
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Written by Sofia Coppola, after a story by Thomas Cullinan & a screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp
Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard
USA rated M, 93 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 July, 2017