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