Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Angourie Rice, Elle Fanning
The Beguiled of 2017 is a remake of a deeply problematic 1971 Clint Eastwood film. Why Sofia Coppola felt that the original was worthy of a makeover is somewhat baffling. In Clint’s version, it takes all of five minutes into the story before we are treated to an exchange where he asks a young girl her age. When she replies that she is twelve, his sleazy response is the jaw-dropping “old enough for kissin’.” Which he promptly does, right on her pretty, prepubescent mouth. What possesses a director to watch such a thing and think it warrants a second turn in 2017? Why would a self-professed feminist take this and try to spin it as a tale of the strength of women? It’s not, when taken as a sum of its parts, and it is a confounding choice.
To be fair, the particularly deplorable scenes of paedophilia have been struck from Coppola’s version, but the themes ring true. Set in 1864 Virginia, in the midst of the Civil War, a group of women maintain a stronghold of Miss Farnsworth’s School for Girls, when a handsome, charismatic, wounded Yankee happens upon them, in distress and need of rescue. That help comes in the form of these apparently strong women, but they fawn and they fuss, while he drinks in the attention as they claw for his affection. Ending in a macabre resolution clouded by possible revenge for being overlooked by a man, it’s not a pretty scenario. Some would argue that these women are finding agency in their actions, but when it is at the expense of their motivations vying with one another in competition for the male gaze, that is null and void.
Fortunately, the exceptional direction and rich cinematography on 35mm film make for a visual delight, with a strong emphasis on the interplaying light as it dapples the ethereal, leafy grounds of the beautiful school building. The performances are stellar, and this is without doubt Colin Farrell at his ageless, charismatic best since In Bruges. Farrell was born for the role of a cad, and he quite clearly relishes every flirtatious moment. Nicole Kidman is predictably gloriously cast as the needfully tough head mistress, and Elle Fanning is utterly bewitching as a seductress, but the performers are clearly struggling with some very thinly written characters in a lacking script.
Where the original film laid out character motivation plainly, Coppola’s version skips merrily past any foundational work, preferring to leave us to fill gaps in its construction, resulting in some unintentionally humorous moments as the audience awkwardly struggles with the lack of context.
The entire film, while gloriously constructed visually, and worthy of the Best Director award at Cannes, feels like a missed opportunity for the premise of a fantastic horror film. Prettiness aside, and notwithstanding the fist-pumping conclusion, The Beguiled feels like a slap in the face to strong women in 2017.