Probably one of Clint Eastwood’s lesser-known films, the 1971 Civil War drama The Beguiled would at first blush seem an odd choice for a remake by Sofia Coppola, especially since she had never seen the original. But as I say in my video review above, somehow by taking the focus off Eastwood’s wounded Union soldier character and placing it squarely on the rising tensions — sexual and otherwise — caused by his presence in a school for young women in Virginia, it is one remake that seems worthy of the effort.
Coppola wrote and directed the film and became only the second woman in history to take the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award. It was well-deserved, as her approach with the material harkens more to Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name than the Eastwood film helmed by Don Siegel which was infused with more of a macho bent. Perhaps that is because Coppola has softened the edges around the male character, an injured Union soldier found just outside the gates of the boarding school for women run by Nicole Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.
Colin Farrell, described as Irish in the book, is perfect casting as the soldier and he brings a certain warmth and appeal that you could see the various residents of this home falling for. And fall they do — even Martha, who rubs down the unkempt man in a mounting sensual way she tries to fight as he lays unconscious. Others in the house, especially Kirsten Dunst’s repressed teacher Edwina, have a different reaction, a more primal response to his presence. That also goes for the young Alicia, played by Elle Fanning, who lets her own innocent curiosity take over. There are a number of students intrigued by the guest, the first man they have ever had much contact with to be certain.
Of course there is also the politics of the Civil War that enter into the fray as this is a very Southern house, and Farrell plays a member of the opposing side in the war. But at first things are relatively calm and surprisingly inviting even, until it all comes crumbling down — including the worsening of his condition, leading to a horrific life-or-death decision by Martha in gothic horror fashion that, as I recall, was actually handled in more graphic detail in the 1971 picture than it is here. That is welcome as the very nature of it is enough to step all over Coppola’s lyrical and steaming setup to that point.
The movie is gorgeously photographed on film by Philippe Le Sourd, who uses candlelight and as much natural daylight as he can almost in the same way Stanley Kubrick had Barry Lyndon lit. It’s stunning, as are all the authentic touches including a score of traditional music of the era arranged by Laura Karpman. Kidman, employing a dead-on and specific Southern accent, could not be better, and kudos to Dunst who has worked often with Coppola and nails a demanding role that goes from A to Z emotionally speaking. Fanning is also very fine and all grown up from Somewhere, the last Coppola film she made when she was 11.
Producers are Coppola and Youree Henley. Focus Features opens the film today in limited release before going much wider next Friday. Do you plan to see The Beguiled? Let us know what you think.