Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, a 1971 Don Siegel film starring Clint Eastwood and based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, is a tense Civil War-era drama that puts a subtle feminist spin on the original picture. And although the film does not rank among Coppola’s best, it’s a gorgeously shot showcase for its terrific cast.
As the film opens, a young Virginia girl (Oona Lawrence) stumbles upon a soldier from the Union Army named John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who has fled battle and has a serious injury to his leg. The young girl – whose name is Amy – helps McBurney back to the girls’ school, where she lives with several other young women, a teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a mother figure, Martha (Nicole Kidman). More than a few shots of the women standing on the porch of the school are seen through the barred gates that surround it to draw attention to the fact that these women are isolated from the war that rages all around them.
At first, most of the school’s denizens – especially a troublemaker named Alicia (Elle Fanning) – do not want McBurney under the same roof and they debate whether they should turn him over to the Confederate troops who often march past their property. Martha leans toward this decision, whereas Edwina – the most kind hearted of the bunch – feels sympathy for the wounded man.
But soon the women warm up to McBurney, who – despite a flirtatious manner that makes some of them uncomfortable – appears grateful for their having saved him and they settle into a routine that often culminates with him at the dinner table. After his stay is extended, McBurney begins to tend to the garden around the property.
However, the introduction of romantic – or, rather, amorous – feelings into the situation causes friction. McBurney declares his love for Edwina and even comes close to doing the same with Martha, but Edwina walks in on a scene involving the soldier and another of the house’s young women and an accident ensues. In the final 30 minutes or so of the film, a hostage situation appears to have occurred, although it is debatable as to whether McBurney is holding the women hostage or the latter.
One element that keeps The Beguiled intriguing is that its view of the characters isn’t simplistic. All of the characters’ – well, perhaps, other than the innocent Amy – flaws lead to the escalation of the tension in the house. Alicia is clearly a pot stirrer, while McBurney is a cad. Edwina, although good natured, makes a few mistakes of her own and Martha is too easily convinced to do what could be perceived as the wrong thing.
Although Coppola has made better films about the coming of age of young women – namely, The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette – her latest is unique in that it not only sympathizes with its leads (as was the case with her previous films), but also critiques them. The women of The Beguiled may be strong and independent, but when given the opportunity to spend time with the stranger locked up in their house, they are willing to turn on each other – that is, until they band together with the common goal of removing the presence from the house altogether.
The picture might ultimately be a minor one in the director’s oeuvre, but it is atmospheric, occasionally tense and well acted. And it’s the rare remake that is concocted for the purpose of providing a different angle of a story, rather than just rehashing it for nostalgia’s sake or to cash in.