Film Review: ‘The Beguiled’

The Beguiled
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Sofia Coppola's remake of the lurid 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood Civil War drama is pulp made tasteful and flavorless.

Don Siegel’s 1971 Civil War drama “The Beguiled,” starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier hiding out at a girls’ boarding school in rural Mississippi, is a quintessential film of the early ’70s — and by that, I don’t mean it’s any sort of masterpiece. Far from it. It’s a crudely lit piece of baroque Gothic exploitation, “gripping” yet overwrought, and it basically has the plot of a porn film. Eastwood’s character falls into one bed after another, and he receives a shockingly cruel punishment when Geraldine Page, as the turned-on but repressed headmistress, makes the vengeful decision to amputate his injured leg for dubious medical reasons. “The Beguiled” is like a mediocre Tennessee Williams play staged by Sam Peckinpah as a third-wave-feminist horror film. Yet there’s no denying it’s a picture of its time.

So why would Sofia Coppola want to remake it? If you’re the sort of moviegoer who favors good taste over sensation, restraint over decadence, and decorous drama over porno leering, then you may actually like Coppola’s coolly pensive and sober new version of “The Beguiled.” But anyone else may wonder what, exactly, the movie thinks it’s doing.

Coppola’s “Beguiled” is a handsomely shot and mounted production, full of stately images of moss-draped trees, and it flows along reasonably enough, streamlining the material down to a crisp 94 minutes. But if Coppola, who also wrote the script, sticks close to the basic story of the 1971 version (and the book that spawned it, Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil”), she changes the tone, so that the characters, for a good while, seem more reasonable, less luridly dominated by their animal instincts. She has made the material “subtler,” but in the process she has amputated its essential charge.

Corporal John McBurney, now played by Colin Farrell, is a Union deserter who is nursing a wounded leg, but the film doesn’t portray him as the scurrilous manipulator that Eastwood’s McBurney was. Farrell speaks in his Irish accent, giving the character the flashing-eyed courtly appeal of a gentleman prole, and the film raises the issue of whether he’s a coward only to dismiss it. McBurney only recently came over from Dublin, so he has no investment in the Civil War. He’s a mercenary who hired himself out as a soldier for $300.

At Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, housed in a white-columned mansion that looks even more than before like a knockoff of Tara (the setting is now Virginia), McBurney, after getting his slashed leg sewn up, treats the school’s teachers and five students with chivalrous charm, and the movie doesn’t appear to hold the fact that he’s a bit of a flirt against him. He’s not playing them — he’s just being who he is. The 1971 version opened with Eastwood’s character planting a kiss on the lips of the 12-year-old girl who rescues him, but Coppola drops the pervy overtones, and she cuts down on the cornball repressed hysteria.

Miss Martha Farnsworth, played by Nicole Kidman, is an upright Christian who likes to lead group Bible readings by candlelight, but Kidman, in a wide-awake performance, creates one of the rare portrayals of a puritanical believer who isn’t caricatured as a contemptible prig. For once, an actress makes walking the straight and narrow look like a reasonable choice. Early on, when McBurney is asleep and Martha sponges down his body, trembling a bit when she touches his hip, it’s not one of those nudge-nudge “Look, the Christian lady really wants it!” scenes. It’s delicately erotic.

The first half of the movie is decent enough, because Coppola, instead of portraying the school as a collection of lonely harpies going crazy from sexual denial, instead shows them to be mostly bored. The war is dangerous and scary, but mostly it has cut them off from life. They’re excited by McBurney’s presence because he’s a sexy firecracker thrown into the doldrums of war, and one way or another they all want to touch that crackling candle. Kidman makes Martha plausibly conflicted — a part of her wants to get close to McBurney, and she also wants to get him healed and out the door — while Alicia (Elle Fanning), the mischievous teenage brat, keeps flashing her saucy smile at him. There’s a good chuckle to be had in Fanning’s delivery of the line, “I hope you like apple pie!”

McBurney, it turns out, does like apple pie, but he falls for the pretty but dowdy teacher Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst as a quiet lump of sadness. His attention perks her right up, and when it looks as if his leg is healing and his stay at the school is coming to an end, he blurts out his love for her (because he may not have another chance). But it’s not as if their bond draws us in emotionally. Nothing in the movie does.

Then comes the moment that changes everything: McBurney’s act of betrayal. It’s right up there, for all of us to see, yet as staged it has little power; Coppola, as director, all but throws it away. It’s an odd choice, but it’s telling, because at that moment “The Beguiled” reveals the kind of movie it really is: not a roiling, dramatic, tempestuous one but, in fact, a rather schematic one. The amputating of McBurney’s leg is the central event of the story, and in the 1971 version it was a grisly act of symbolic castration. Here, though, it actually manages to be vague. As presented, the motivation of Kidman’s Martha is muddled (it’s hard to buy her stake in the vengeance), and as a result the movie’s whole sense of comeuppance turns coldly ideological and abstract. McBurney did something he shouldn’t, but he’s really being punished for The Sins Of Men.

Sofia Coppola has long been a filmmaker who divides critics and audiences. I count myself as a Coppola believer (I even liked her Hollywood art ramble “Somewhere”), but this may be the first film she has made in which her essential personality as a director gets buried under the movie she’s making. She has “feminized” “The Beguiled” to the point that she’s really just pummeled it into the shape of a prestige movie, one that ends with a telling tableau of the film’s female characters posed in formation, like some Civil War sorority of the newly woke. Coppola, in attempting to elevate the material, doesn’t seem to realize that “The Beguiled” is, and always was, a pulp psychodrama. Now it’s pulp with the juice squeezed out of it.

Film Review: 'The Beguiled'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 24, 2017. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production

A Focus Features release of an American Zoetrope production. Producers: Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley. Executive producers: Robert Ortiz, Fred Roos, Anne Ross.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Sofia Coppola. Camera (color, widescreen): Philippe Le Sourd. Editor: Sarah Flack.

With

Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Reicke, Wayne Peré, Emma Howard.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 34

Leave a Reply

34 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. Kelli says:

    Not sure why this movie was made. I walked out thinking this movie made no sense & had nothing that even intrigued me enough to care about any of the characters. Why Kirsten Dunst character would want to be with the colonel after what he had done absolutely made no sense. Very dull & boring.

  2. Stephen S says:

    Thanks to Variety for this useful review, which explained more clearly than most of the trade reviews why it wasn’t essential for me to see the movie.

  3. Jon Danton says:

    I’m really not sure what movie this reviewer was watching, but it certainly wasn’t “The Beguiled” recently produced by Coppola… maybe the reviewer is on the Coppola payroll, but this is the worst directing, editing and script I’ve ever seen come out of one of that family’s productions. I was really looking very forward to this, as “Marie Antoinette” was a beautiful film, if not well written. This movie is neither.

  4. Deedee says:

    I really looked forward to seeing this movie as I love southern gothic stories and I think the original Beguiled is Eastwood’s best film. I even like its ending better than the book, although the book has much better character development and complexity. But Coppola’s version missed the whole reason why the book was called “The Beguiled”.

  5. jmengele says:

    Just wondering. What exactly does Sofia Coppola have against black women. No real need to know. Just wondering though

    • Nellie says:

      And I’m wondering why someone that uses the name of Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor that performed experiments on his “patients,” mostly Jews and Romani children, in the concentration camp Auschwitz, would be wondering about someone’s feelings about black women. Mengele’s experiments were intended to prove that the Aryan race was the superior race.

    • Hellohello says:

      I don’t mean to be a jerk.. but how would you try to accurately portray black women in this film about the civil war that is already based on a book?

  6. Watch The Beguiled Full Movie Online
    http://mcaf.ee/phvmnd

  7. drush76 says:

    Don Siegel’s 1971 Civil War drama “The Beguiled,” starring Clint Eastwood as a wounded Union soldier hiding out at a girls’ boarding school in rural Mississippi, is a quintessential film of the early ’70s — and by that, I don’t mean it’s any sort of masterpiece. Far from it. It’s a crudely lit piece of baroque Gothic exploitation, “gripping” yet overwrought, and it basically has the plot of a porn film. Eastwood’s character falls into one bed after another, and he receives a shockingly cruel punishment when Geraldine Page, as the turned-on but repressed headmistress, makes the vengeful decision to amputate his injured leg for dubious medical reasons. “The Beguiled” is like a mediocre Tennessee Williams play staged by Sam Peckinpah as a third-wave-feminist horror film. Yet there’s no denying it’s a picture of its time.

    Don’t agree with you. Not for a damn second. What is it about a sexual melodrama – especially one in the South – that antagonizes film critics?

    And where is the Hallie character? Coppola deletes the only black character, who was not only in the 1971 film, but also in the 1966 novel?

  8. Jovana says:

    Dismissing Don Siegel’s great film as a piece of pornography discredits the author of this text… in case film critics matter today.

  9. AllWiledUp says:

    Owen’s mansplaining! Yikes.

  10. SPIKE says:

    COULDN’T HAVE SAID IT BETTER MYSELF: “it’s pulp with the juice squeezed out of it.”
    overrated sofia disappoints again.

  11. Maxine says:

    Thanks to reviews like this, Sofia Coppola’s films are more enjoyable to read about than to invest time in. Is that by her self-aware design? Viewers take in the body of work, a soft pink collection of handmade sea shells, we admire, snitter, dismiss, but always take comfort in the vicarious schoolgirl mindset of the exercise. It grows familiar, reliable over the years, becomes nostalgia for privilege we never had and never will. Charms on a bracelet left on the pool bottom of the Marmont. A gross, dirty fork at the bottom of the kitchen sink. Best of times, worst of times. Soda can champagne.

  12. JOE S HILL says:

    And yet another stupid remake is made from a classic movie that is only done once, and never again! but the people today, especially Francis Ford Coppola’s family just doesn’t seem to get the message, that all their creative juices just don’t justify a remake-and today, that is the perfect cheat, and it’s utterly tiresome and stupid! the 1971 Universal Pictures film with Clint Eastwood is the superior here, and whatever Sophia Coppola thinks she’s accomplished here, it’s little more than wasted energy. the casting is certainly no match for the original actresses from the 1971 version- you had talents like Darleen Carr, Mae Mercer, Elizabeth Hartman, JoAnn Harris, and former child/teen actress Pamelyn Ferdin, a jewel of her time period, who eventually poisoned Clint Eastwood with Toxic Mushrooms, and the ultra performance by the late Geraldine Page, who gave a sinister and seductive role as the headmistress. good luck trying to use today’s talents, especially with Colin Farrell, who’s a great actor, but wrong material! same thing with Kirsten Dunst, who still glows from her “MJ Watson” role from Sam Raimi’s “SPIDER MAN” trilogy- great performers, but still inferior casting with inferior remakes,,waste of time!

    • jmengele says:

      Francis Ford Coppola was a GENIUS. Sofia is simply TALENTED, at best. Bob Dylan sez this in a song, “…like Jesus Christ…(but) you ain’t him…”

  13. Melonie says:

    Jeez – calm down PC police. Maybe check to see the context in which “feminized” is used before you get your panties in a wad. Also, for someone who is such a feminist liberal, Coppola has failed as a filmmaker as far as I’m concerned because she only seems interested in making movies about poor little rich girls — The Suicide Diaries, The Bling Ring, Marie Antoinette, etc. And now this. Perhaps she should get out in the world and see how the rest of us live.

    • Hellohello says:

      I think she’s just trying to make what she feels she can honestly portray from her perspective. Probably why you don’t see Spike Lee making films about poor little white girls. It wouldn’t appear genuine.

    • Kajol says:

      Sure, because you’d say the same thing to a male director like Zack Synder, to stop making fantasy/superhero films and see how the rest of you live. Ugh!

  14. TJ says:

    In Mr. Glieberman’s defense – the commenters here are jumping on the word ‘feminized’ without reading it in the context of the entire review (or having even seen the film).

    It sounds like he’s saying the weighty feminist message of the film doesn’t mesh with the more realistic and subtle characters – that their final act betrays the integrity of the characters in order to drive home some grand metaphor. He’s not critiquing the message, just saying it isn’t effectively told in the context of this film.

  15. Kriish Mukerji says:

    I’m generally a huge fan of your reviews, Mr. Glieberman, but at times like this I stand by Jessica Chastain’s view that we need more female voices in film reviews.
    I’m in no way attempting to plaster any tags on you as a person, but this review did really feel quite sexist to me.

  16. KJ says:

    Funny enough, I’m now more interested in this film than before. It sounded ridiculous on paper, but the delicate touch on an absurd premise might be up my alley. It has a droll black comedy feel to it, after reading this review. We shall see.

  17. Thank you for the monumental spoiler, Mr. Gleiberman!

  18. Bernardo says:

    She has “feminized” The Beguiled? That’s disguting!
    Female filmmakers keep doing those awful feminized films, I’m glad we have this man Owen Gleiberman to put them in their place.

    • Kriish Mukerji says:

      Oh, the horror of lending a female voice to films! Please learn to respect a voice that may not be your own.

  19. Je Vizzusi says:

    Probably not the first to say your review teaters on being sexist! Those images of tough guy one legged Eastwood stumbling about are embedded. The South will never be the same with Sofia, let it rise again!

  20. Chris says:

    So, Coppola “feminizing” the film is a complaint for this reviewer? Yikes.

    • No, that is not a complaint. Why would it be? The complaint is that she didn’t do it well.

      • Hellohello says:

        Sure, it is merely your opinion Owen.. but on what authority do you have it to say whether or not a female has portrayed femininity correctly?

      • John says:

        And yet you wrote: “She has ‘feminized’ ‘The Beguiled’ to the point that she’s really just pummeled it into the shape of a prestige movie.”

  21. Chris says:

    Thank god we have this man to simplify this film for us.

  22. geri313 says:

    Sound like Owen just doesn’t get this movie. It would be nice to see what a female reviewer has to say. Making the movie about the women and girls, rather than the one-dimensional male character sounds very interesting.

    • Daryle Gardner-Bonneau says:

      My sentiments, exactly – I would really like to see a woman reviewer’s “take” on this film and/or a review by someone who knows the history of what it was like being a woman during the Civil War.

More Film News from Variety

Loading