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.
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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.