In remaking The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola has captured some beautiful and atmospheric moments of the antebellum south. But, the film fails to confront the defining issues of the time. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’

Kirsten Dunst, left, and Nicole Kidman, centre, in ‘The Beguiled’.
Kirsten Dunst, left, and Nicole Kidman, centre, in ‘The Beguiled’.

Some months ago when I read that Sofia Coppola had directed a new version of Don Siegel’s 1971 The Beguiled, I was immediately curious to see it. My memory of the original film, adapted from a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan titled A Painted Devil, was that it was both hypnotically beautiful but also at times hysterically overwrought. In preparation for this review, and just before attending a preview of the Coppola remake, I sat down and watched the Siegel film again. My memory hadn’t played me completely false. The original The Beguiled is indeed a mesmerising work even when it is revelling in sexual perversity, and even as its hothouse atmosphere of unleashed feminine repressed sexuality occasionally turns ludicrous and even camp.

Coppola’s film is set in the middle of the American Civil War where a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney, played by Colin Farrell, is discovered by 13-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) while she is in the woods collecting mushrooms. Amy is one of five female students at the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. Nicole Kidman plays Farnsworth, the owner of the school, and, alongside teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), she has taken on the responsibility of care for the remaining girls who, for various reasons, have no homes to return to while the war is raging. All the women and girls are southern and staunchly Confederate. But loath to leave the enemy soldier to die alone in the woods, and knowing that he is unlikely to survive as a prisoner-of-war in his condition, they take him into the school. Martha insists that once he is well they will turn him over to the Confederate forces. But during his convalescence the two older women, along with the oldest girl, 17-year-old Alicia (Elle Fanning), find themselves attracted to the charming and handsome McBurney. Even the youngest girls fall under his spell. The tension and drama in this version of The Beguiled is in how their rivalry for the corporal’s affection undermines Martha Farnsworth’s efforts to keep the girls united and safe and to protect them from the real possibility of rape from both Confederate and Union soldiers. Amid chaos, Martha is steely in her determination to create order in their world. For the film to work, it has to become a battle of wills between Martha and McBurney. That’s where the drama lies.

And that’s where the drama fails.

It’s not difficult to see what it is that has attracted Coppola to the story. From her first feature, The Virgin Suicides (1999), through to her previous film, The Bling Ring (2013), she has become a supremely confident filmmaker of evoking the hermetic worlds of women who live totally within privileged bubbles. Whether it is the idealised suburbia of her first film, the five-star experience of the international jet set in Lost in Translation or the uber-materialist Los Angeles of Somewhere and The Bling Ring, her characters are always contained within boldly delineated frames and interiors that seem separated from the reality of what is occurring outside the hotel, down the street or over the private estate walls. This evoking of remoteness can be lulling to the viewer but it also risks listlessness and inertia. Cut off from the war that is taking place literally outside the college gates, with the sound of gunshots and cannon-fire a constant aural reminder, the seminary of this film is also a sealed-off space where the women continue their French lessons and needlework as if the great upheavals unleashed by the Civil War can be tamed and ignored.

For the film to beguile us, to enthral us as viewers, we need to understand how foolish and impossible this ignoring of the real world is. In the Siegel version, McBurney is played by Clint Eastwood, and his desperation and his wiliness give a mercenary and cruel inflection to his charming of the women. He’s a liar and we don’t believe his promises to any of them. In the 1971 version, McBurney flirts with and teases Amy, the little girl who discovers him. It remains a deeply disturbing opening scene in part because we are immediately aware of the burgeoning sexuality of this young student, of how easily her ignorance of her own desire can be manipulated and used by the older man. The most resonant scene in the original comes when Amy feels herself betrayed by McBurney. It is her rage and her jealousy that ultimately destroys him, and it is precisely this rage and this jealousy that Martha can manipulate to gain ultimate victory over the soldier. In Coppola’s version Amy remains sexually innocent and McBurney is chaste in his affections towards her. This romantic conceptualisation of McBurney strips him of deceit and cynicism. When he declares love for Dunst’s Edwina Morrow we believe him, and that too undermines the film. I think both Dunst and Farrell give measured and intelligent performances, as do Kidman and Laurence, but they are ill served by Coppola’s conception of the story. If Siegel’s version was partly undermined by lurid schoolboy fantasising of the women’s sexuality, Coppola’s version is destroyed dramatically by schoolgirl romantic fantasising. Geraldine Page was almost loopy in her playing of Martha in the 1971 version but we sensed her rage and her jealousy and we comprehended immediately that her actions were a cruel revenge on McBurney. Kidman has been directed to play Martha with such restraint that the force of her repressed desire is never satisfactorily communicated. This leaves Farrell floundering embarrassingly in his final scenes. He seems histrionic and his ranting fantastical. We don’t get what we get immediately and viscerally in the Siegel version. That in this war between the sexes, the women have won.

There’s an even greater failure in this adaptation and that is the excising from the story of the slave woman, Hallie, played with astonishing authority by Mae Mercer in the original. I think it one of the great performances by an African-American actor in 1970s cinema and Coppola’s choice in removing her voice from the film is a terrible misjudgement. While the other slaves have fled the seminary, Hallie has remained with the women. Though never stated in the dialogue, we glean from Mercer’s contained fury that she is there not from any loyalty to the white women but that, in a world where rape is a constant threat, to leave the college places her at the mercy of every man she meets: Union and Confederate, slave and freed. Eastwood’s McBurney attempts to seduce Hallie into forming an alliance with him but she’s not having any of it. He might wear the Union Blue but she doesn’t trust any white man. Hallie’s presence acts as a constant reminder of what is at stake in the Civil War, and the casual and mean racism of the other women towards her, even from the sympathetic Edwina, means that there is always a judicious distance that we hold as viewers of the film. We never quite trust any of the characters. It was a daring choice for filmmakers to have made in 1971and it remains a daring choice in rewatching it now.

The failure of this version of The Beguiled points to the limitations Coppola has as a filmmaker when it comes to creating stories set outside the contemporary world-weary milieu of her most successful films. I thought her Marie Antoinette was a mess, even though there were moments of thrilling audacity in some of the early sequences, and that was because she seemed incapable of imaginatively interpreting the lives of people who lived outside Marie’s cloistered Versailles. On some level Coppola must have known that setting her story during the Civil War, the war that ended slavery in the United States, would require of her to think through the representation of black lives on the screen. I want to be clear here that I am not just making a point of representational correctness but that I think there is a greater problem for Coppola that comes from a lack of interest or a fear of how to think outside her own circumstances and experience. I was curious as to why she wanted to remake The Beguiled and on seeing her adaptation all I can think of is that she was attracted to the set-up – seven women in a claustrophobic space dealing with a rogue male intruder. A filmmaker such as Tarantino would have played up the exploitation tropes of the original and, whether successful or not, he would not have been scared of confronting the questions of race and slavery. But Coppola shows no interest in the exploitation genre and the only aspects of her film that are successful are the art direction, the costuming and the lighting. She’s fascinated by the look and the other-worldiness of the antebellum south, not the politics and not the terror.

Sofia Coppola has written and directed all her own films. But on the evidence of Marie Antoinette and this film, she clearly needs to be collaborating with writers if she chooses to work with material set in the past or set in spaces and places unfamiliar to her. There are plenty of auteur filmmakers who keep returning to the same themes, the same obsessions, the same intimate and restricted worlds. That is perfectly legitimate for a filmmaker. But it was also her choice to remake The Beguiled and also her choice to denude it of any complexity, confusion and anger. The friend I saw it with whispered to me halfway through, “It’s Picnic at Hanging Rock set in the deep south.” The film does have moments of real beauty and serenity. But there’s a war being fought outside, there is a merciless slaughter of men and what is at stake is the abolition of one of the most obscene of human institutions: slavery. Forgive me, but with all that, who the fuck cares what has happened to Miranda?


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Venues throughout Noosa, July 21-30

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Theatre Royal, Hobart, July 21-22

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Edinburgh Gardens, Melbourne, July 15

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Perth Town Hall, until July 16

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "Lost in flirtation".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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