Originally a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan called A Painted Devil, the story of The Beguiled first made its way to the big screen in 1971, from director Don Siegel and starring the likes of Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. In that film, the story was told from Eastwood’s character’s point of view, with Corporal John ‘McBee’ McBurney’s skewed portrayal taking over, despite him being the only man in a house full of women.
Sofia Coppola saw the film, after a friend suggested she should remake it, and decided that she would take it on, on one condition: she would allow the story to be told from the point of view of the women in the house. It’s something that led to her picking up the Best Director Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Taking place during the American Civil War in 1863, an all-girl boarding school is living in peaceful bliss and tradition and seem to be for the most-part ignoring the pains of war outside the confines of their home. That is until one of the party’s youngest members finds a wounded enemy soldier in the woods near to the estate, bringing him to their door much to the shock of everybody else living there. Upon quick reflection, the women decide that the best course of action would be to take the soldier in, in secret, helping him heal from his wounds and handing him over to Confederate forces. The alternative would be to hand him over immediately and seemingly sign his death warrant.
Throughout his stay, the soldier, Corporal John McBurney – played by Colin Farrell – works his charm on many of the women in the boarding school, getting close to three of them in particular; the headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth, the teacher Edwina Morrow, and the oldest student Alicia (played by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning respectively). Each of the women find themselves seduced by his softly spoken tone, but as a viewer you’re constantly left wondering if he has an ulterior motive. At the time, Farrell’s character would be seen as a coward for fleeing the war with minor injuries, but in the present day we’re actually conditioned to see him as someone who made the smart decision to get out whilst he still could. He’s somebody viewers are constantly in two minds about, which echoes exactly how Kidman’s character in particular seems to feel about him.
There were moments in the film where, as a viewer I was willing the story to move on a little faster than it was doing, but it would have been understandable if the slow pacing was a conscious decision by Coppola, who may have been hoping to build tension and suspense through making us wait for answers and a definitive outcome.
Though this is a production weighed heavily with women, that doesn’t mean Farrell is somebody instantly painted in a negative light. In fact, viewers will likely feel some huge sympathy with him throughout at least the first half of the picture. Contrasting his soft nature against that of the stern principal Martha means that we often find ourselves hoping he’ll work his magic and soften her approach; he’s certainly able to quickly do that with the other ladies of the school.
Of course, with one man and so many women in one place, all of the ingredients are in place for one mighty disaster. As affection turns to jealousy and plotting, the story takes some wild turns that eventually sees guns fired, clothes ripped off and huge changes in personality. Giving away too much would ruin the story that Coppola has so carefully put together in her version of this classic tale, but it’s fair to say this is an incredibly watchable and attractive feature.
Combining the talents of every single actor who’s on the screen here is the recipe for success. Chemistry is high throughout and it doesn’t take long as a viewer to be transported to a time none of us were alive to experience. With lush surroundings, a beautiful house to film in and the gorgeous costume used, The Beguiled is one of this year’s best-looking releases, and we’re glad we took the time out to watch.
The Beguiled is available now on digital download, and comes to Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, November 20.
Tagged in Sofia Coppola