Don Siegel’s 1971 film, The Beguiled – adapted from A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan – was an ugly, exploitative picture with messy sexual politics and even more confused logic surrounding the politics of the American Civil War. It was sweaty, lurid, horrific and frequently deeply unpleasant. And not always in a good way. Sofia Coppola’s retread of the same material is stately and restrained, with none of the sensationalist excess that made Siegel’s film so incredibly engaging and occasionally riotous, even when it wasn’t all that good.
Siegel’s film opened with the discovery of Clint Eastwood’s wounded Union soldier, John McBurney, by a young girl from a nearby Southern school. They hide and at one point McBurney leans in and gives the girl, who is around twelve-years-old, a very adult kiss on the mouth. It’s creepy and frankly rather sickening, and Siegel continues in this vain throughout the film, showing us the dark, seedy side of McBurney’s character. Whilst at the same time, trapping him and submitting him to torturous mutilation by the women and girls that live in the school.
In Coppola’s film, the first scene is incredibly similar – albeit filmed in a much more luxuriously composed fashion – but she omits the kiss. Instead Amy rather innocently rescues John, who behaves in an entirely polite way. There’s a complexity in Siegel’s telling – John is a disgusting creep, but he is in need. He is also on the right side of history – with regards to the war – but he’s personally not a good individual. And in this complexity the meat of the movie can be found. And there’s a lot to chew on. Coppola has subtracted from this in her telling but added very little new. It’s a bizarre choice, that does make one wonder why she set about remaking this material at all.
Coppola does have a few new tricks up her sleeve, predominantly to be found in the film’s occasionally very amusing streak of black comedy.
Coppola does admittedly have a few new tricks up her sleeve, predominantly to be found in the film’s occasionally very amusing streak of black comedy. A couple of lines dripping in subtext and a number of subtle looks between characters really pop with humour and Kidman’s devilishly-mannered Martha is a delight to watch on screen. A dinner table sequence in which she criticises the amount of shoulder that Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) – the second oldest member of the household – is exposing is wickedly funny, and Coppola returns to it brilliantly later on with a marvellous act of unspoken defiance from Edwina.
Every actor turns in a really wonderful performance throughout, but the material doesn’t always give them what they need to run with their performances. There’s the feeling that they are all playing at a higher level than Coppola and co-writer Your Henley are quite able to keep up with. There’s so much potential in almost every aspect of the film that The Beguiled feels so disappointing despite being perfectly okay.
The thematic underpinning of the film feels particularly squandered. As I alluded to above, there is little mined from the psychosexual nature of the story and the politics of the Civil War – a comment from a character on how their slaves have fled, for instance, is left to hang in the wind. A lot has been made of the fact that a female director was tackling this material and there was a lot pinned by some on the idea that this would result in a bold feminist viewpoint, or at the very least a more female viewpoint and gaze. The latter is there to some degree, but to call this a feminist work would be a stretch. THere’s so much potential for subtext, but so little actually explored. And sadly when the film does have a little bit of grit to its subject matter, such as a late mutilation scene which will be well remembered by those familiar with the source material, Coppola and Henley feel the need to have a character say the subtext out loud.
Handsomely made and very well acted, The Beguiled is a somewhat taut thriller, but one that suffers greatly from having all the edges softened off the source material. What’s left is fine, but rather unremarkable, beyond a few humorous moments and its frequently pleasing aesthetic.