Film review: The Beguiled

David Gritten / 13 July 2017

Sofia Coppola serves up a stylish slab of Southern Gothic in this re-telling of the 1971 Civil War tale that starred Clint Eastwood.

Just to make it clear upfront that we’re discussing a film of some substance, Sofia Coppola, who directed The Beguiled, took the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.  It’s certainly a distinctive piece of movie-making, and its every frame carries her personal stamp. Whether it quite succeeds or satisfies is another matter.

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The Beguiled is a remake. Its story, based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, is a slab of what Americans call Southern Gothic – a Civil War story in which Confederate soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell), wounded in battle, is discovered in a forest and taken in by the headmistress, her teaching colleague and five pupils of a seminary for ‘young ladies.’ He agrees to tend the seminary garden while he recovers, and expects to spend the rest of the war in this pleasant setting. This is a man who feels he has fallen on his feet.

Farrell’s McBurney seems amiable and decent – though his status as an object of desire for three of the women is immediately clear. Yet he isn’t a strutting seducer, which is how Clint Eastwood played him in director Don Siegel’s lurid version of The Beguiled back in 1971.

But then the whole tone of Coppola’s film is utterly different: it feels cool, carefully staged and resolutely feminine. The ladies waft around the seminary, looking understatedly alluring and clothed tastefully in white or cream at any given moment. Nicole Kidman is the steely though genteel headmistress Martha, whose knowing exchanges with McBurney only hint at flirtation. Her assistant Edwina is more obviously smitten with him. And the oldest of the pupils, Alicia (Elle Fanning), clearly harbours a teenage crush.

Suffice to say this show of civility and restraint between the sexes comes to an end, with startling results. But nothing quite undermines Sofia Coppola’s desire to keep the film looking stylish, composed, even sedate. The look’s the thing, and no matter what personal hell any of the women are going through at any given time, they never look less than gorgeous. It’s a problem I’ve had with her work ever since her notable debut The Virgin Suicides, and especially with her frankly awful Marie Antoinette, which more closely resembled a fashion show than a film. (One longs for her to return to stories about proper, believable characters, which she did so brilliantly in Lost in Translation.)

So her version of The Beguiled, an eventful (and, it must be said, sometimes bloody story) is framed as a costume drama in which the costumes take centre stage. Intriguingly, there’s never a visual hint that outside the seminary’s gates, there’s a war going on.

The Beguiled  has a rich, textured look, but the film is too tasteful to serve the story’s dramatic functions. It is 94 minutes long, which is agreeably concise, but given that its characters rarely seem to break sweat, it actually drags a little. Still, if it’s an exercise in detached visual style you’re after, this is the film of the week for you.

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