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Remakes have a sourness about them these days, their saturation and often underwhelming quality turning the very word into a kind of dirty term among audiences, tired of the glut and letdown. It’s certainly not fair, as many, in the right hands, have proven themselves not only worthy, but superior to their inspiration. The ‘right hands’ this time are those of filmmaker Sofia Coppola, whose few films have been a delicate string of often challenging and innovate movies that represent a small collection of some of modern cinema’s most enduring and impressive work.
The Beguiled is no less an effort, a remake of sort of the classic 1971 Clint Eastwood-starring, Don Siegel–directed film of the same name. Set in the American south during the Civil War, it begins with a young girl named Amy (Oona Laurence), who, while picking mushrooms, comes upon a wounded Union soldier named John McBurney (Colin Farrell) hiding out in the woods, having made a choice with his regiment that has him filled with regret. Amy takes him to the school where she lives, run by Martha (Nicole Kidman), who assumes the soldier is close to death, but tends to his wounds as best she can. Meanwhile, the school, of which has only five students and a teacher named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), all soon fall under the spell of lust and love over the man, who in these times are a rare things. Naturally, it causes emotional chaos as John takes to using his power over them to manipulate and separate them.
If there is anything Coppola does best, it’s painting a picture with colors so sharp there is nearly no need for words, and with Albert Maltz‘s screenplay, based on the 1966 book by Thomas Cullinan, the film crackles with atmosphere as an eery, dreamy quality lingers throughout. Lit with natural light, and lots of candles, a peachy hue soaks every frame, lending the look a softness that becomes counter to the actions within as McBurney charms, flirts, and generally morphs into whatever he needs to become to divide and conquer. The women are the story of course, each taken to the soldier in different ways, represented in the greatest contrast by Edwina, who is convinced they are in love, and Alicia (Elle Fanning), a teen who is in great sexual need, engorged with desire she dreams of sex and strives to see even a glimpse of the partially-clothed McBurney. In-between them is Martha, who is a mystery of sorts when it comes to men but has her own attention and allure.
Farrell is no Eastwood but that’s an unfair comparison because he’s a very good actor and is well-cast, sturdy and appropriately dark and mistrustful. Kidman has great range and brings humor and strength to Martha, as does Dunst, who plays Edwina with a touch of classic southern Belle-ism. Fanning is sensational, continually revealing that she is becoming one of her generation’s most accomplished talents. However, it is Coppola herself who comes off best, once again unafraid to buck expectations and let the film simply settle over you, allowing for great moments of stillness and expression. Her attention to the smallness of things have always been her film’s greatest triumphs and there is much here to explore, the larger themes of goth and sexuality as powerful as the arrangement of the furniture and the bodies within them.
The Beguiled is not as daring or unnerving as the original but Coppola has stated her intent was not to remake that film but adapt the book. She won the prize of Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her work (the first time in 50 years a woman has done so) and it is well-deserved. A haunting and sometimes chilling film, The Beguiled is willowy fairy tale that will linger long after it’s over.
Movie description: The Beguiled is a 2017 drama about a girls' school in Virginia during the Civil War, whose young women's sheltered lives is disrupted by a wounded Union soldier.
Director(s): Sofia Coppola
Actor(s): Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning