The 1971 southern gothic tale The Beguiled has been reimagined with a sharp, witty tone that delivers some darkly funny laughs.
Some of the greatest facets of a southern gothic tale — equivocal gender roles, a decaying setting, social alienation — all appear in both adaptations of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, renamed The Beguiled. However, unlike the clear male gaze of the original 1971 version, which was directed by Don Siegel and starred Clint Eastwood, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set firmly from the female point of view. But, it’s not just a single view. Instead, she looks at female desire from four different viewpoints. That change elevates this new version of The Beguiled to surprising new heights while also streamlining the narrative to be more deep and effective than before.
In 1864 Virginia, a few students and teachers remain in the Farnsworth Seminary run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). From the school, you can see smoke and hear canon fire as a reminder that the Civil War still rages on.
While searching for mushrooms in the woods in deep Virginia, Amy (a delightful Oona Laurence) stumbles upon a Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who injured his leg. Amy helps him back to the school where he passes out. Martha decides to take him in and nurse him back to health before handing him over to Confederate troops. However, there’s a noticeable shift in the air when Corporal John McBurney arrives. Teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), teenage student Alicia (Elle Fanning), Martha, and the other students begin fighting for McBurney’s attention often slipping into his room, which he is locked in, to even just steal a glance of him. However, they all have different motives.
Coppola smartly strips the movie of any obvious subtext and instead allows us to derive meaning from each characters’ actions. It’s less about the possible threat of McBurney and more about each woman’s reaction to his presence. And all of their reactions can be summed up in desire. Martha sees John as a companion. Unlike her complicated backstory in the original adaptation, it’s simply hinted at that Martha lost her husband at some point during the war. She sees John as a way to fill that void. Edwina, on the other hand, wants John as an escape. It’s clear that she’s unhappy with the way her life has gone, but she never had the means to leave it. To her, John is her chance to be free. Alicia, the eldest of the girls at the school, lusts after John. Her repressed sexuality suddenly has an outlet when John appears. And lastly, Amy, who doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls, want John to be a friend or even brother.
What is most surprising about The Beguiled, though, is that it is a delight to watch. Not that I didn’t think it was going to be enjoyable. But it’s surprisingly funny in its own dark way. In one scene, the girls, particularly dressed up for their first dinner with McBurney, slyly fight over the apple pie that McBurney just complimented. The polite, but pointed, banter is a hilarious reminder that none of these women have felt the attention of a man in quite some time.
However, there is a noticeable hole in terms of race. There has been a lengthy discussion about a black female slave character being cut from film — she appeared in both the book and the 1971 version. For a movie so closely tied to the Civil War, it was disappointing to not have that commentary. Especially considering this is a movie about desires. A woman in that position would have a very interesting perspective on the situation. It is addressed with a throwaway line early in the movie. Still, for such a lean narrative, one would wonder why they couldn’t fit in such an important conversation.
The Beguiled is a practice minimalistic storytelling. We rarely leave the overgrown grounds of the school — the growing weeds are a small reminder of the absence of slaves — the characters don’t say more than is needed, and the plot doesn’t stray far from the main thread. However, it is still a charming and engrossing, albeit quiet, movie. Though she certainly has Farrell, who delivers a constantly shifting performance that keeps you guessing, and Kidman, who is powerful in her otherwise reserved role, to thank for that. The Beguiled isn’t your typical summer thriller. However, one of the best things on a hot summer day is a dose of melodrama. And that, like revenge, is served up ice cold.