IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During the middle of the American Civil War in 1863, injured Union soldier John McBurney is rescued from the verge of death by 12-year-old Amy, a student at an all-girl boarding school in rural Mississippi, the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. Martha reluctantly agrees to take him in until he has built his health, under the condition that he is locked in his room and kept under watch. Edwina, the schoolteacher, takes an immediate liking to John, as does Alicia, a teenage student. Gradually all the females warm to John, but soon the sexually repressed atmosphere of the school becomes filled with jealousy and deceit….
So here I am, confronted with reviewing the film that finally made me get myself into gear and review the 1971 Don Siegel-directed, Clint Eastwood-starring The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola’s remake. Though I’m one of those strange folk who wasn’t impressed much with Coppola’s critically lauded Lost In Translation, I hadn’t seen any of the films she’s made since until this one, and I actually had a good feeling about her version whilst I was watching the original, because the latter seemed to tell a story that could easily withstand another telling, not because the 1971 film didn’t do its job well enough – it most certainly did – but because it was so unusual and interesting. And as I type, I remain of the opinion that a remake could be a worthwhile and fruitful endeavour – but not this remake. I don’t tend to read reviews by others if I’m intending to review a particular film, preferring to do so once my review is done and dusted, but I do know that I’m in the minority with regard to the new version of The Beguiled, it having apparently garnered more far more good reviews than bad – and I honestly cannot understand why. Even after about 20 minutes it seemed to me to be a pale shadow of the original, though I guess I shouldn’t have watched the earlier movie so close to this one, as I do think I may have appreciated this version more if I hadn’t.
For the moment though as far as I can see, all that Coppola, who’s also written the screenplay, has really added is prettier cinematography and a feminist perspective that makes all the females far more sympathetic. Of course that would be enough for any critic looking to be seen to be ‘progressive’ and ‘right on’ to immediately give the film a good review. But it also means that there’s far less conflict and far less of interest, especially with the depiction of John having him as a rather reasonable guy for the first half. And Coppola has removed a great deal, notably the back stories for some of the characters which she may have considered too lurid in the original but which are still important because they influence the actions of these characters and could have easily been tweaked to make them more satisfactory to her. And she’s totally removed Haille the slave, apparently because, in her words: “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African American character I would want to show them”, which just sounds like typically cowardly modern political correctness to me, as well as making it rather daft that there are no slaves around. With so much taken out, the story just seems much emptier, and has to now be told at half speed.
The opening shots of Amy wondering in the woods dwarfed by huge cicada trees are quite stunning and at least tells you that this film is going to look great. Amy finds the wounded John, and takes him back to the boarding school where she resides. The initial idea is that the headmistress Martha will help him recover and then turn him over to the Yankees, though a couple of the girls think that even keeping him there temporarily is not the thing to do. Martha is indifferent to him but schoolteacher Edwina and teenage student Alicia seem to warm to him very quickly. When John gets better, Martha tells him that he should leave in a few days despite him helping out in the garden, obviously fearing to return to the war again, and beginning to return Edwina and Martha’s interest. One thing that’s interesting here is that, when he tells Martha that he loves her, it seems to be genuine, which means that, for those who haven’t seen the original film or read the book [I have no idea which film is more faithful, I expect the 1971 version], it’s quite a shock when he’s seen with someone else. However, it’s also rather inconsistent. Eastwood’s character was quite obviously out to take advantage of the situation right from the beginning, so it was believable that he would go to someone’s bed and therefore cause the anger of two others. With Colin Farrell’s character though, it just seems like some scenes are missing as it seems strange that he would suddenly behave like this.
In fact dotted throughout the film are instances where scenes seem to be missing, yet time is also often wasted on moments which often have little interest whatsoever. Much more of the story is told from the point of view of the women, so much so that whenever a scene comes along which just features John or seems to be more from his point of view, it seems awkward. Everything is muted, toned down, from the characters to the depiction of events. We don’t even get to see the amputation, though we are shown a gory stitching near the beginning which actually seems rather out of place considering that, aside from a few sequences in the final quarter, Coppola seems to be aiming for a dreamy feel similar to that of Picnic At Hanging Rock. The many shots of sunlight streaming down through trees are quite beautiful, and the white-dominated colour schemes for the interiors seem both appropriate and visually pleasing. When Edwina and John meet in his room, they’re wonderfully seen in near-silhouette against a thin white [of course] curtain through which we can even make out their eyelashes. Philippe Le Sourd’s work throughout this film is really striking, but then it has to be because almost everything else seems half-assed, as if they didn’t try very hard.
A few sequences in the final quarter do sometimes improve on Siegel’s film because John is allowed to be nastier and for a bit longer, but of course Coppola can’t have the women seem anywhere near as nasty as Siegel did. John does actually get to have sex with one of the women here, in a rather ridiculous moment where I almost burst out laughing in the cinema, but in general there’s a timidity about Coppola’s approach throughout, this restraint only occasionally working because there’s far less food for thought in this version. With far less of an anti-war aspect, there’s not even much sense that this is taking place at the time and place that it is, Coppola’s almost total ignorance of backdrop making one wonder why on earth she decided to set her version during the American Civil War in the first place. With a few minor alterations, she could have set it almost anywhere and it may actually have worked rather better in some cases.
At least the performances are pretty much all spot on, Kirsten Dunst being especially good, though Nicole Kidman’s accent slips now and again and Farrell visibly struggles at times with his character who is really quite shoddily written. Still, the acting is overall quite impressive considering that the performers generally have little to work with. It’s an odd irony of Coppola’s version that it spends more time with the female characters but doesn’t actually take us any closer to them – they remain enigmatic. Coppola certainly has a knack for showing quick glances and subtle gestures which mean a great deal, but for the most part her film is all shiny surface with little underneath – which wouldn’t be as much of a problem if the film wasnt’t giving the impression that there’s actually a lot more to it then meets the eye. Well, maybe there is, but I certainly didn’t see much compared to the richness of the original. It’s not really a bad film if taken on its own and certainly has its merits, notably in the acting and the visual departments. It’s always easier to forgive a remake when it adopts a different feel, and this version of The Beguiled certainly does that. Unfortunately, it’s also vastly inferior to its predecessor and just left me wondering why they bothered.