A wounded Union soldier is sheltered at a girls’ boarding school in rural Virginia during the American Civil War, igniting pent-up passions and jealousy in this pale imitation of the 1971 Clint Eastwood classic, itself based on the 1966 Southern Gothic novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. The Beguiled (2017), written and directed by Sofia Coppola, is a remake no one asked for, visually beautiful but emotionally monochrome.
John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a corporal in the 66th New York and wounded in the leg while fighting somewhere in Virginia in the summer of 1864. He stumbles through the wilderness and collapses. Amy (Oona Laurence), a young student at the nearby Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, discovers him and takes him back to the neglected school.
Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) stitches Corporal McBurney’s wound and allows him to stay long enough to recover. Meanwhile, he attracts the attention of the other young ladies of the house, Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), and especially their teacher, Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst).
McBurney is passive but emotionally manipulative. He pledges his love for Edwina, but after catching him in flagrante delicto with Alicia, she accidentally pushes him down the stairs, which opens his wound and breaks his leg. Miss Martha amputates his limb below the knee to prevent infection. McBurney flies into a rage when he sees what she has done, gratuitously injures Amy’s pet turtle, and terrorizes the girls with a revolver.
As McBurney and Edwina finally consummate their love, Marie suggests poisoning him with mushrooms. They invite him to dinner, feed him the poison mushrooms, and he dies. The girls wrap his body in a shroud and leave it outside the gates for passing soldiers to claim.
The Beguiled is visually artistic, painted in soft tones using natural light and candlelight to illuminate a pallet of pastel creams, pinks, azures, and peaches. The sounds of nature and distant battle serenade every scene. There’s a sense the school is besieged not only by an unseen force, but also by nature itself, run wild through several years of neglect.
Sofia Coppola expressed a desire to retell this story from a female point of view, but I’m not sure how she accomplished this goal. She removed all action, tension, and controversy from the original film, leaving a pale, nearly emotionless shadow. She also omitted Hallie, a female slave, because “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” Huh? She wrote the film–she could have depicted Hallie as the heroine if she wanted.
The scene in which McBurney tumbles down the stairs is a perfect example of how this version falls short. In the 1973 film, Edwina attacks him in a rage and beats him with a candlestick, deliberately pushing him down the stairs. As McBurney falls, the audience watches from over Edwina’s shoulder as the camera shakes violently. After, she continues to berate him and wishes he was dead. It’s a jarring, emotionally charged and almost frightening scene.
In this version, Edwina shoves him against the wall and he accidentally falls down the stairs. She shouts “No!” as he falls, emphasizing that it wasn’t intentional. Then she just stands there quietly as Miss Martha rushes to his aid. The camera follows him down the stairs in a tight shot. In contrast to its predecessor, it’s clearly shot in his perspective, which seems to undermine the director’s vision for a female-centered film.
Ultimately, The Beguiled has a great cast of experienced and up-and-coming actresses but no chemistry between them. A scene in which Alicia and Amy stand around lifelessly hitting the ground with hoes sums up the whole film. When Alicia asks, “Are we almost done?” she might as well be speaking for the audience.