The Beguiled works a treat as a romantic comedy of manners for over half its running time, then abruptly and jarringly switches tone and style, lunging for the finish line as a southern gothic revenge thriller.
Whatever possessed Sofia Coppola to resurrect the pulpy and deservedly obscure 1971 Clint Eastwood flick, The Beguiled, for a remake? Buggered if I know, but seems her decision has been vindicated by an overwhelmingly positive – nay, gushing – critical response and a Best Director award for the work at Cannes this year.
I didn’t know it was a remake when I saw it. That makes a difference, which I’ll get to.
The film is set in Virginia during the Civil War. Most of the action takes place in a girl’s boarding school, a once-grand mansion with its glory days behind it. With the Yankees closing in (the muted thunder of not-so-distant cannon fire is a constant throughout), the slaves gone, and the menfolk away fighting, the occupants have been reduced to pious headmistress Martha (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kristen Dunst) and five students ranging in age from 12 to late teens.
The youngest, Amy (Oona Laurence), out in the forested estate grounds gathering mushrooms, comes upon Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee soldier with a serious leg wound. She helps him back to the school, where he collapses.
Headmistress Martha is persuaded rather too easily to harbour the hunky enemy until he recovers his health. Declining multiple offers of assistance from her suddenly vibrant charges, she pulls rank and takes over nursing duties. A gratuitously lascivious scene of near-naked unconscious McBurney being sponged from head to toe by a convincingly (and fetchingly) flushed Kidman inspired chuckles from the audience, and set the tone for what was to follow.
McBurney comes to in a veritable harem of beautiful male-company-starved women gorgeously attired in long, white diaphanous dresses (the costuming is exquisite), each secretly sneaking into his room to “check on him” whenever the opportunity arises. One, the sexually precocious Alicia (Elle Fanning), gives him a tantalising taste of southern hospitality, introducing herself by waking him with a lingering kiss on the lips and a promise of more to come.
McBurney applies his abundant charm with caddish expertise. His agenda is partly amorous, partly to escape the threat of being turned over to the Confederates, to which end he wastes no time secretly declaring his love and proposing marriage to the naïve, swooning Edwina.
The air is thick with pheromones, innuendo, jealousy and scheming, and there’s some delectable humour to be had in the women’s interactions with McBurney, as they maintain a façade of manners, properness and Christian austerity, while struggling to control the surging tide of repressed sexuality within. It’s delightful stuff, deftly managed by Coppola and the actors.
Disconcertingly, just as what I thought had been carefully shaped as a romantic comedy of manners builds to its most intriguing stage, there’s a jarring narrative and tonal shift that signals an abrupt stylistic switch to “southern gothic” thriller and an end to the slow-paced dialogue-driven drawing room civility.
Things turn gruesome and the film rushes to the finish line, as McBurney learns too late that the female forces he’s unleashed with his charm offensive and duplicitous sexual dealings are far stronger and darker than he’d bargained for.
I left the cinema somewhat befuddled. The drawing room comedy of manners I thought I was watching and had been so enjoying had turned into something else, and it seemed to me that Coppola had lost the plot, quite literally. Then, on researching the film, I learnt it was a remake.
I subsequently chased down the original. It was pretty trashy, and not one of Eastwood’s finest efforts as an actor. BUT, it cohered in a way that Coppola’s remake does not. It knew what it was, had no pretentions to be otherwise.
There are a lot of differences between the two versions. Aesthetically, Coppola’s film is vastly superior. I’m talking elements like costuming, set design and lighting. The performances are also superior, as is the dialogue. The major difference, though, is that the original takes the perspective of the male character and is decidedly misogynistic (a trait not uncommon in Eastwood’s work); Coppola, on the other hand, approaches her remake from a feminine/feminist angle.
All well and good. The problem is she is bound by the narrative of the original, when she might have made a far better film if she’d merely taken inspiration from the prototype as a starting point and gone her own way thereafter. Accolades notwithstanding, this is a minor work from Coppola.
The Beguiled features: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writers: Sofia Coppola (screenplay), based on the earlier screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp (as Grimes Grice) and the novel by Thomas Cullinan
Runtime: 93 mins
Australian release date: The Beguiled in Australian cinemas from 13 July 2017
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