After the bizarre misfire that was 2013’s The Bling Ring – a film that was ironically as vacuous as the celebrity-obsessed protagonists it attempted to satirise – director Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled marks a return to the drowsiness that characterised her early films. Gone are the B-movie trappings of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name – Coppola’s arthouse-friendly remake ‘feminises’ the original by ramping up the smoke machines and piling on the pastels, as well as shooting with a consciously female gaze in mind. As an exercise in perspective-flipping, The Beguiled is wildly successful. Beyond that, however, the film doesn’t have enough going for it; and one wonders if Coppola’s delicate restraint is masking a lack of ambition.
The film is set in an isolated girls school in Virginia during the Civil War, where the only five remaining pupils live under the instruction of teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and headteacher Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Their contained life is disrupted by the arrival of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell), whose presence transfixes the women.
The set-up is largely the same as the original, but the focus is markedly different. The women of the house are no longer portrayed as sex-crazed inmates, rather naturally curious. The war may have trapped them in the school, but their biggest problem is boredom. The soldier’s presence beguiles them, if only because he provides the intrigue of the new. One delightfully sensuous scene sees Kidman’s character cleaning the soldier’s wounds; here, her movements and the lingering camera are as inquisitive as they are sexual.
The inevitable competition between the women results in some subtly hilarious dialogue (in terms of genre, the film verges on jet black humour) but the sharp exchanges don’t add up to the developed relationships the film needs. Kidman, Dunst and Elle Fanning put in great performances, but don’t get enough screen time together. I’d even venture that, at 94 minutes, The Beguiled is too short.
Much has been said of Coppola’s controversial decision to remove black slave characters from the narrative (bluntly put in the film: ‘the slaves left’). Perhaps she was motivated by a need to make her Confederate protagonists more sympathetic. Whatever the case, the decision is part of a larger ironing out of the moral ambiguities of the original, which is pulpy verging on exploitation film; also exorcised are suggestions of paedophilia and an attempted rape by Confederate soldiers.
But by playing it safe Coppola has also dumbed it down. Even in midst of a brutal Civil War setting the director manages to stick to what she knows: exquisite interior design and beautiful dresses worn by rich white people. The Beguiled should be a slow-burner leading to an explosive ending, but even the climax is underplayed – the film just flickers out.
Image: Focus Features