The Beguiled

20 Jun

The Beguiled Subtly Tackles Race Even When You Don't See It

Given Sofia Coppola’s penchant for strong female characters and repressed sexuality, be it the pairing of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation (2003) or the alluringly perverse texture of The Virgin Suicides (1999), it somewhat makes sense that she set her sights on remaking Civil War Gothic The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. That 1971 film, based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel The Painted Devil was directed by Don Siegel — who would later that year pair with Eastwood for the maverick cop avenger fantasy Dirty Harry — who mined Eastwood for all his macho virility as a Yank soldier, wounded behind enemy lines and brought to an all-woman seminary to recuperate. Given the prim nature of the house, the sheer presence of male pheromones wreaks havoc on the females’ sensibilities as Eastwood’s Corporal John McBurney proves to be a feral manipulator, having his way with several of the women and even pitting them against one another. Coppola’s version throws a dash of saltpeter on the role here undertaken by Colin Farrell who turns the good corporal into a more humane, less lurid incarnation.

You’d think a softer touch might educe a deeper plumbing of the complex emotions that get brought to the surface by war, strictly imposed Christian values, and a member of the enemy — and the opposite sex — lying in the very next room, but that doesn’t necessarily prove to be the case. Coppola chases authenticity in small, subtle strokes. Siegel took a far different approach, creating something of a psychological thriller, inserting gauzy fantasy sequences and quick intercuts of the lean Eastwood in bed with one of the lasses as horror etches across the faces of the estate’s matrons attuned to the meaning of the giggles and bumps echoing from the far reaches of the house. The film, a box office disappointment that was to prove Eastwood’s range beyond revenge westerns, bordered on near spectacle, but it possessed an edgy energy that never flagged. 

In the roles of Martha, the spinsterly and desirous head of house, and Edwina, Martha’s earnest second-in-command, Coppola asks much of Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, and the two shoulder the film dutifully. Almost too much so as the whole affair, like the women themselves, feels too muted and staid. Things are held back for so long, that when it comes to the sussing out of the fox in the hen house and the bloody retribution, the revelations don’t feel quite earned.

Beyond the overall texture, other alterations that Coppola, who wrote the script, makes is the notion that Farrell’s McBurney is an immigrant mercenary desperate for funds and takes up with the Union for $300 pay. The move allows Farrell to engage his charming Irish brogue, which makes the corporal more gentlemanly than Eastwood’s unbridled soul, but it also abates the soldier’s mercurial nature and furthermore makes him apathetic to the larger conflict outside the estate’s gates. In short, it’s a character neutering. Gone too is the role of Hattie, the black house servant (played by Mae Mercer who would also have a small part in Dirty Harry) who clashed nicely with Eastwood’s corporal. Siegel didn’t do much with the issue of race, but for a socially acute director like Coppola, it seems like a missed opportunity.

Still, given the palette Coppola has chosen to paint with, the film is competent and well composed and knits together seamlessly in the final scenes. Beyond her capable cast, Coppola’s major ace in the hole turns out to be French cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, whose framing of the Virginian estate through hanging strands of moss as artillery bursts just a few fields away is a scrumptious aesthetic. It’s a wonderful overall effect too, the eerie ever-closeness of war, and yet, in the film’s single setting, anything to do with blood, battle, or allegiance feels state lines away, except when it comes to matters of the heart, where devastation can come in a single glance.

Oona Laurence and Elle Fanning strengthen the film’s pivotal roles that determine the corporal’s fate. Oona’s 12-year-old Amy discovers the corporal while out picking mushrooms, while Fanning’s Alicia, seeking to explore her powers of appeal, raises brows and pushes buttons. Fanning seems to take her much desired ingenue from Neon Demon (2016) and channels her into a more calculating and brazen extension here. There’s no question it’s a great cast with great chemistry, but sometimes to show the tamped bite of puritanical posturing you have to loosen up the frayed strapping.

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