The Beguiled

It's been a few years since I watched Don Siegel's 1971 adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan's novel The Beguiled, a Civil War hothouse drama about a wounded Union soldier finding shelter in a Southern girls' school. I recall that film, starring a young Clint Eastwood just months before reteaming with Siegel to make Dirty Harry and history, as being surprisingly intense. I understand it's been rather dismissed of late as misogynistic, its female characters perceived as jealous harpies and devious sluts. Sofia Coppola's remake, which credits not only Cullinan but the 1971 film's screenwriters, adopts a distinctly female point of view, and it would be interesting to watch both films back to back, to study the differences.

For those who don't feel like watching a double feature of The Beguiled, though, I won't waste time comparing the two films (though there's one crucial difference worth noting: the deletion of a slave character who was so central in Siegel's film), and ask instead how well Coppola's adaptation stands on its own.

Like most of the director's work, The Beguiled is drenched with atmosphere: if you like sunlight filtered through Spanish moss, you've come to the right place. And subtlety is the name of the game – the film's greatest joys unspool quietly, as the school's two teachers (Nicole Kidman and Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst) and five students vie for the attentions of the wounded soldier.

I'm admittedly not a fan of Sofia Coppola; her focus on setting is often at the expense of storytelling, and it tends to leave me cold. And she only seems to have one recurrent theme: the desires of pampered, isolated, and thoroughly bored young women. (Read into it what you will.) The girls in The Beguiled, although they are mere miles from the battlefront – the explosions of distant cannons are ever-present – are sparklingly clean and well-fed. If 1863 Virginia is falling apart, you wouldn't know it from them. Like the characters in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, they are sheltered beyond belief, and starving for a bit of excitement from the outside world.

That excitement comes in the form of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who shamelessly flirts with every female in the house, from the giggling tween students up to the world-weary schoolmarms. Coppola wisely has Farrell retain his native Irish accent, making him one of the immigrants paid to take the place of rich American conscripts. This McBurney has zero loyalty to the Union and is more than happy to stay put and be fawned upon. Like Eastwood in the 1971 film, he gets more than he bargained for when each of the school's older women sees him as her own. Unlike Eastwood, Farrell's unique combo of manliness and boyishness makes him a convincing object of desire for girls aged 10 to 50.

The Beguiled, at a crisp 94 minutes, is more story-driven than Coppola's previous films, and thus it is more entertaining. The cast is first-rate (especially a restrained Dunst), the sexual politics are on point, and the film looks gorgeous. Because it's not as all-out freaky as its 1971 predecessor, it doesn't linger as long in the memory. But it still serves as a thoughtful distaff response to Siegel's gonzo classic.