I will say I was rather surprised to see that The Beguiled had been remade. Not frothing-at-the-mouth indignant that anyone could ever remake such a film, but more intrigued that anyone would want to do it: the 1971 original, starring Clint Eastwood, was a strange project which probably didn’t find its audience upon release and it’s struggled to get due recognition since. It’s not a romance, and it’s not a war film, it’s incredibly tense, but it’s low on action. These trope-defying films have a hard time and they’re a hard sell. So why return to the subject matter all over again?
Happily, the saving grace here is Sofia Coppola. Whilst her filmography isn’t vast, she’s shown that she has a deft hand when it comes to drawing out new subtleties from even the best-known stories. For example, most people know who Marie Antoinette was and what became of her; in her film of the same name, Coppola managed to make her story poignant again by showing her as a girlish, vulnerable figure undone by frantic political upheaval, not some staid figure or (as popular propaganda had/has it) an aloof idiot who thought the poor could eat cake if they didn’t have bread. If anyone could recast something familiar in a new set of ways, then perhaps Coppola could. Adding an intriguing cast, the stage was set. This remake could well be worthwhile.
Virginia, the 1860s. The story starts with a little girl, Amy, gathering mushrooms in the woods near the boarding school where she studies and lives. It’s a pretty, sylvan scene, but the Civil War is in its death throes just nearby and the booming of cannon keeps interrupting the birdsong (this totemic noise continues throughout the film until it becomes stiflingly silent when it finally stops.) Amy is startled to see a wounded Union soldier sheltering underneath a tree; he asks for her help, and so she supports him back to her school, where the last few inmates there with no other place else to go eventually carry him indoors to treat his wounded leg. The man is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a recently-arrived Irishman who only signed up for the Yankee cause for money. Panicked and injured during a recent battle, he had escaped. Hence, as he’s keen to point out, he has survived. The women at Miss Martha’s Seminary ponder what to do with him, but decide to let him recuperate.
His presence in the school soon changes their lives, however. At first it’s barely perceptible, but the girls (even the very young girls) respond to there being a man around by wanting to help him, or please him, or even just talk to him. Even the two responsible adults, Miss Martha herself (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) forget their tight-laced Christian demeanours in his presence – even if only momentarily, before they snap back into type. All the women and girls begin to take more care over their appearances, dressing up for him, squabbling over jewellery and dresses, and all of them seem completely pliable after even a kind word or two from McBurney. It’s a situation he’s very keen to exploit.
Having no great moral impetus – beyond hard cash – to get back to the battle, he sets his morals aside completely, happy to manipulate each of the women for – is it his own vanity? For sport? Or simply to secure their Southern hospitality for as long as possible? It seems that it’s any or all of those reasons in turn, but what’s certain is that the power shifts in The Beguiled move one way, then another, like a needle and thread through a tapestry (or any of the other less orthodox fabrics we see when we encounter this women’s work in the film). First McBurney is powerless – completely prone, after his injury, and the women who tend to him seem to enjoy his powerlessness: Miss Martha cleaning his (almost) naked body is turned into a queasily erotic tableau where a man potentially about to die of his injuries becomes some serious eye candy: furthermore, the enjoyment she gains from looking at him and touching him is ratcheted up by the use of microphones which pick up the rapid changes to her breathing, a trick the film employs elsewhere with the other women. Then, McBurney takes full stock of his situation, flattering and cajoling the women – particularly Miss Edwina, who Dunst effectively plays here as a living powder-keg. She’s an insular and downbeat character (teaching will do that to you) but her emotions reflexively spark into life when it transpires that she’s been lied to. Thus, the power shifts again, and again after that.
Although there’s barely a raised voice in The Beguiled, and we see trickery, rather than all-out violence, the tension simmers along unmercifully all the way through the film. This is due to the above-mentioned cannon fire which never moves off completely, the proximity of troops from both sides of the conflict, and of course the almost unbearable goings-on within the school: those old friends sexuality and envy move through the cosy, quiet rooms like a miasma, eventually giving rise to something like Misery (1990) where a man is hobbled and brought down. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, as the old saying goes – well, perhaps, but much of it in The Beguiled is in word and not deed, whilst the deeds themselves – when they occur – are not protracted, or even shown on screen that much. The final act – here, as in 1971 – may therefore not feel like an adequate pay-off for everyone; for me, it was completely in keeping with the manner of the story. With a man around, the women have begun to re-assume the more traditionally feminine roles and interests they’ve had to set aside, because the slaves are all gone and they must do their own digging and their their own shooting (if needs be). When that man transgresses, manipulating them and using them, the women are left with their traditional feminine pursuits, so they have no option but to use these as their weapons: the film concludes in an unholy trinity of needlework, cooking and sex. Even in times of war, even on the losing side, feminine wiles and pastimes can be lethal.
A worthwhile update to a challenging original piece of Southern Gothic, The Beguiled is in cinemas now.