The studio all but buried the 1971 original. Not knowing quite how to handle it, with poor marketing and a fractured release, there’s a new generation of moviegoers who’re probably unaware there was ever an earlier version. But for those who remember The Beguiled as it was told in the ’71 Clint Eastwood film, they’re the ones who’ll have the most fun with the new Sofia Coppola version. Both are based on the same novel and both have the same arc, but it’s the dreamy, thick-as-molasses, sensual tone where things change, and that makes a big difference.
If you’re among those who never knew there was a previous version, that’s not altogether important; as a stand-alone feature, you should still enjoy what writer/director Coppola has done with the Thomas P. Cullinan novel. But if you are familiar with Eastwood’s movie, making comparisons, recalling earlier events, and seeing where the changes now lay helps enhance things; it simply makes everything more interesting.
It’s the time of Civil War. Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is badly wounded. He’s bleeding and crouched behind a tree in the middle of a Virginian wood, away from his unit and in desperate need of treatment. A young girl, Miss Amy (Broadway’s Matilda, Oona Laurence) from the nearby Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, discovers John and takes pity, even though he’s a soldier from the other side. She helps him to his feet and together they stagger back to the school. “I cant say you’d be welcome, as a yank,” she tells him, “But it’ll be better than here.”
For obvious reasons, the headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) shows an initial reluctance to take him in – “They rape everyone they come across,” states one of the young school girls, Jane (Angourie Rice), disturbed by his sight – but the woman’s christian values guide her to a more accepting nature, and she opens her doors, stitches the wounds to his leg, and keeps him locked in the music room while he heals. Amy tells everyone his name is John McBurney, but Miss Farnsworth shows little interest. “He’s not going to be here long enough for his name to make any difference,” she states, but it’s delivered in such a dismissive, lofty tone, you know she’s secretly hoping otherwise. But stay he does, and it’s his presence in a secluded seminary, populated by a small group of girls, one female teacher, and a headmistress, that truly makes all the difference.
The first thing you’ll notice is the look of the film. Shot with a rarely used screen ration of 1:66 (slightly wider than earlier TV screens but not wide enough to fill out a current HD monitor) there’s an intentional appearance of looking hemmed in, just as those young ladies feel, forever restricted within the confines of the seminary while the civil war rages somewhere out there, far away in the distance. The surrounding area of the mansion remains peaceful; the only local sounds heard are the ever-continuing chorus of insects in the woods, but from the horizon, you can hear the distant dull boom of cannon fire. The ‘71 version was letterbox, widescreen.
Director Coppola has also opted for shooting her Beguiled on film, using 35mm rather than the clear, clinically crisp visuals of modern digital. And there’s a visible difference. Not only is it more pleasing to the eye, but it also captures a dreamy feel to the images; there’s a genuine sense of an earlier time, like photographs with depth that come alive. Nighttime interiors are shot with the natural look of candlelight, akin to the technique Kubrick developed for Barry Lyndon. Where the underlining presence of steamy, Gothic horror with a somewhat lurid undertone was always there with Eastwood, Coppola’s version appears far more lyrical.
Curiously, the character of Hallie, the slave, played in the ‘71 version by blues singer Mae Mercer, is absent from Coppola’s adaptation, even though the woman’s presence was of great importance to both the novel and the earlier film. Director Coppola has said she wanted to focus on the women of the school, concerned that the subject of slavery was too important to be featured as a subplot. This change certainly streamlines events considerably, plus it creates it a further sense of isolation for these women from what is happening in the outside world and why it’s occurring, but it’s a jarring absence, all the same.
The major difference, though, is the character of McBurney. Unlike the all-American Eastwood playing a yankee out of his zone, Farrell is Irish and keeps his accent. He’s an immigrant, a mercenary with no allegiance to either side. When some of the young girls refer to him as a Blue-Belly, the reality is it’s not McBurney. His loyalty was there for the buying, and it’s simply unfortunate circumstances that he’s wearing the uniform of the north when lost in Virginia. But it’s the uniform that causes early conflict. “You’re not a guest here,” Miss Farnsworth reminds McBurney. “You’re a most unwelcome visitor.”
The conflicts that later arise due to his presence are the unspoken, sexually-repressed tensions felt by some of the sheltered women. They’re less displayed on the surface by Kidman’s Miss Farnsworth, even though there’s always a sense of suggestive eroticism in everything she says and does when directed at him, but particularly by teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and bored, young Alicia (Elle Fanning), causing a rivalry that will eventually prove a catalyst to something horrendous.
Coppola’s directorial style is slow and deliberate, a welcome change of pace, and it’s here in her remake of The Beguiled where it works to her best advantage. Marketing has gone to lengths to insist this new version is not a remake but a new adaptation of the Cullinan novel. Call it what you will, it’s still the second version. Taste and a choice of style will determine a preference, but personally speaking, Coppola’s approach is the better.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 94 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)