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Thursday, July 13, 2017 12:30 am

Effective, Haunting “Beguiled” Hard to Shake

While I often object to remakes of films that were well made the first time around, Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a redo of the little-known Clint Eastwood feature, proves to be a worthy exercise.  It not only reflects a shift in sensibilities between one filmmaking era to another, but key changes in the script cast an entirely different light on this Southern Gothic nightmare of repression and its consequences, as many of the characters are drawn in a more complete manner, providing key insights to their motivation and actions. It isn’t a complete success as Coppola stumbles badly at the end, yet for the most part it is a very good thriller propelled by modern gender politics that may make this movie a hot button issue for discussion.

A never-better Nicole Kidman is Miss Martha, a Southern lady who runs a seminary for girls.  While the horrors of the Civil War seem to be just in her back yard (the near constant echo of nearby cannon fire reminds us of this), she continues to run her institution, more as a sanctuary for her young charges than anything else. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), the lone teacher in her employ assists her and together, they educate and see to the welfare of precocious teen Alicia (Elle Fanning) and four younger students – Amy (Ozona Laurence), Jane (Angora Rice), Marie (Addison Reece) and Emily (Emma Howard).  Their existence is rather dull and relatively safe, all things considered – that is until Amy, out walking one day to gather mushrooms, finds a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and brings him back with her so that he might heal. 

Colin Farrell as John McBurney in The Beguiled.
Courtesy Focus Features

Before you can say “Rooster in the henhouse,” attitudes and behaviors radically shift for all of the inhabitants of the home, each of them aflutter by the presence of not only a young attractive man, but one that is obviously dangerous, seeing as how he’s a Yankee and all.  Repression runs rampant here but temptation gets the best of everyone as the youngest of the girls go out of their way to talk to their guest or wave to him, hoping to curry his favor or simply get one of his dazzling smiles, while the three older women…well, they have something all together different in mind.

The film has atmosphere to spare, as mist creeps across the early morning lawn of the secluded school and sunlight is rarely seen through anything but the massive drooping Cyprus trees on the place, while the candlelit rooms these frustrated souls inhabit hide much more than they show, a wonderful metaphor for the behavior on display.   Credit cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd for creating this gossamer world in which deceit and frustration stand side-by-side, growing until a tragic explosion of passion destroys all involved.

It should come as no surprise that the female roles have been expanded upon, as Coppola penned the screenplay, which hones a bit more closely to the original novel by Thomas Culinan, than Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation.  More background is provided for Miss Martha and Edwina, giving them a much more human dimension than they had before, while providing more logical reasoning for their actions.  They and all the other women are portrayed in a much more sympathetic light, as they are seen struggling with their conflicting desires rather than simply acting on them.  Perhaps the most important alteration is the notion that, in the end, they have been victimized and their actions are justified.  If there is a fault to the script it’s that the character of McBurney is given short shrift.  While he doesn’t necessarily come off as a one-note character, his lack of background prevents us from drawing any conclusions as to what he’s thinking or feeling.  Ironically, he’s rendered in the same incomplete manner that so many female roles have been in years past.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) shelters her charges in The Beguiled.
Courtesy Focus Features

As one might expect, all of the performances are top-notch, though I suspect Fanning wished she’d been given a bit more to do, while young Laurence is a name to remember, impressing here as she has before in Southpaw and Pete’s Dragon. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of all concerned, but Coppola tells a taut tale here, regrettably rushing the ending as though she had better things to do and simply wanted to move on.  Still, this proves an effective, haunting tale that’s hard to shake, a film that benefits from the great work from all involved and the director’s uncompromising vision.  

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