Movie Review: The Beguiled
By Matthew Huntley
July 10, 2017

You'll eat your gruel and you'll like it!

Just before seeing Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, I happen to discover Donald Siegel's 1971 version, which starred Clint Eastwood as the conniving Civil War Union solider who's nursed back to health at a girls' boarding school, only to get more (or perhaps lose more) than he bargained for. Both adaptations are based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, who wrote a blunt yet effective parable about the dangers of taking other people's emotions for granted and that suggested no human being, young or old, male or female, is immune to beguiling or being beguiled. We may believe ourselves mindful and decorous enough not to be deceived or turn wretched, but the truth is we're all susceptible to charm, vindictiveness and moral compromising. It's just a matter of whether we let these things destroy us.

Both Coppola and Siegel's movies are good but not quite great, a status that may have been especially difficult to achieve in this case given the underlying material is so blatant with regards to its themes and messages. However, if one places the two versions side by side, it becomes apparent a great movie could exist if it possessed the best qualities of each, because the style could overshadow the lack of substance. Perhaps in 30 years, if another filmmaker takes this into account and adapts Cullinan's novel a third time, it will really blow us away.

In the meantime, Coppola's film still serves as a rich and hypnotic experience. It puts us in state of constant unease as its imagery and soundtrack, or lack thereof, create an atmosphere that's both beautiful and deceptive. These characteristics also apply to Miss Martha's Seminary for Young Ladies, a boarding school nestled deep in the woods of Virginia. Not far from here is where the school's youngest student, Amy (Oona Laurence), while picking mushrooms, discovers Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee soldier with a broken leg. Amy helps him back to the school grounds, where Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the school's owner and headmistress, is convinced by the students and staff it's their Christian duty to watch over this man, even though he's the “enemy” since he fights for the North.

Almost immediately, each of the female characters, particularly the prudent teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and sensual student Alicia (Elle Fanning), are infatuated with their new patient and secretly compete for his love and affection. This includes Miss Martha herself, who, like the others, is probably attracted to McBurney because he's the first man she's touched in such a long time (it's four years into the Civil War and most of the country's men are either fighting or dead). That, and the fact McBurney is injured and immobile, and therefore vulnerable, allows these women to feel like they're in control of a man for once, a feeling most women of this era didn't often experience.

Even though it's clear what's happening on-screen, Coppola's methods for bringing this somewhat simple story to life still manage to mesmerize us, although perhaps most of the credit belongs to cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and sound designer Richard Beggs. Collectively, the look and sound of this film are beguiling in and of themselves, creating an oblique veil under which these characters live and behave. On the surface, they appear and speak innocently, but deep down each is secretly human, which is to say they possess dark, sinister thoughts and lustful feelings, and this being the 19th century, nobody really talked about their sexual urges, especially women.

Le Sourd's cinematography is bright and soft, incorporating lots of whites and yellows to complement the whitewashing taking place as McBurney makes advances toward his various female caretakers, making each of them believe they're the only one he has eyes for even though his actual intentions are to exploit them, have his way with their bodies, and leave just as soon as he's able. Even though the women are smart enough to know this, they too allow their desires to cloud their judgement, and as tension between them escalates, the situation as a whole turns darker and eventually violent, at which point Le Sourd's bright colors are replaced by their darker counterparts.

Beggs' sound design similarly reflects the progression and state of the story. Most of the time it's busting with the harmonious, non-diegetic sounds of the environment: birds singing, crickets chirping, floors and doors creaking. These are lovely and striking, and lend the film its lenitive qualities, at least until the conflicts ensue and music actually plays on the soundtrack.

Taking into account how the imagery and sounds enhance Coppola's film, it becomes clear how these qualities could have benefitted Siegel's version, which was busier visually and more instrumental throughout. It had more cuts, close-ups and zooms, which ultimately made it less understated. The quietude of Coppola's film, on the other hand, puts us in sort of a trance and it's often soothing to watch, even though we know danger and violence are on the horizon, and it's these opposing forces that keep us engaged.

Just the same, Coppola's film could have utilized Siegel's devices earlier on by gradually sneaking them in under our radar instead bringing them to the forefront all at once merely when the narrative “called for them.” In this regard, it's traditional and straightforward because the photography and soundtrack simply mirror the present situation, which is what we expect, and therefore film loses its sneaky edge. Neither Siegel nor Coppola's film is majorly flawed as a result of its aesthetic choices, but it's interesting how both could have benefitted by lessening their own qualities and replacing them with the other's.

One area where Coppola's film is flawed is with the utter abandonment of the black female slave named Hallie. Played forcibly by Mae Mercer in Siegel's version, Hallie possessed the strongest female voice in the story and refused to take orders from anyone - man or woman - lying down. Her presence lent a depth and credulity to the story because we could believe a boarding school for white girls in the 1860s would really own a black female slave, who also offered a different perspective on what was happening. Coppola's screenplay also leaves out the female characters' inner monologue, which I found chilling and unnerving in Siegel's version, and she foregoes a particularly visceral moment involving a saw, which, speaking of the soundtrack, really made you quiver when watching Siegel's film.

With Siegel's The Beguiled already existing, Coppola's version is perhaps more a technical achievement than a narrative one, although it does illustrate how two different visions of the same material could have improved the other. Coppola's rendition may not be entirely necessary, and if you had to choose, Siegel's is ultimately more effective, but Coppola's still has its own virtues and there's a lot to admire about it. Her artistic decisions, especially with what she chooses to leave out, aren't the most sensible, although I'm confident she had reasons for making them. Her film involves us enough that it makes us curious what they are.