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D: Sofia Coppola / 94m

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

Remakes are ten-a-penny these days, with movie makers deciding that familiarity will attract more moviegoers than not, and if the original movie is one that is fairly well known and/or regarded (and even better, financially successful), then it makes it easier to justify revisiting said original. But it’s unlikely that anyone was clamouring for a remake of Don Siegel’s minor classic The Beguiled (1971), a movie that bombed on its initial release but which has gained a sterling reputation since then. However, on the advice of production designer Anne Rose, writer/director Sofia Coppola watched Siegel’s version and began thinking of ways in which she could update the movie for modern audiences. The result is a movie that is atmospheric, sophisticated, beautifully shot, and yet curiously distant in its evocation of female desires.

As with the 1971 version, Coppola has adapted the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. In it a Union Army corporal named John McBurney (Farrell) suffers a serious leg wound during battle and manages to get away from the fighting. He makes it to some nearby woods where he is discovered by a young girl, Amy (Laurence). She helps him up and takes him to the girls school where she resides along with the school’s owner (and teacher), Miss Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), another teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Dunst), a teenage girl called Alicia (Fanning), and three other young girls, Jane (Rice), Emily (Howard), and Marie (Riecke). McBurney’s arrival causes consternation and divided opinions amongst the staff and the pupils, with some of them insisting he be turned over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner of war, and others insisting that he be allowed to stay and at least recover from his wound. In the end, Miss Farnsworth decides that he can stay until his leg has healed.

McBurney’s presence gives rise to his being the recipient of overly attentive behaviour from the women and the children alike. Miss Farnsworth tends to his leg, while Miss Morrow hovers around offering assistance at every opportunity. Alicia too is in close attendance, and the rest of the girls all take an exaggerated interest in McBurney’s well-being. As his leg improves he begins to move around the school, and shows an interest in the garden, which he helps to maintain. He begins to spend more time with Miss Morrow, and eventually professes his love for her. They arrange to meet in her room late one night after everyone has gone to bed, but when McBurney fails to turn up, Miss Morrow goes to his room and finds it empty. And then she hears noises coming from another room…

Where the 1971 version traded on a more fervid atmosphere in order to tell its tale, this version remains an austere and measured accomplishment, with Coppola giving limited expression to any desires held by the female characters. While it’s a given that Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow would strive to remain aloof in relation to the presence of a wounded yet otherwise virile soldier, and for the perceived sake of the children in their care, thanks to the precise nature of Coppola’s screenplay, their being aloof hampers the effectiveness of the emotional outbursts that occur as the movie progresses. These outbursts are generally well handled by the cast, but in dramatic terms they don’t have the impact needed to make the viewer sympathise with the characters involved, and even though McBurney suffers more than an injured leg, what should be a moment of horror – both for McBurney’s discovery of what’s happened to him, and the ease with which his suffering is agreed upon and carried out – is let down by the restrained melodrama that precedes it.

This distancing between the viewer and the characters has a strange effect on the story and how it plays out. In many respects, and by making the directorial decisions that she’s made, Coppola has taken Cullinan’s novel and decided to explore it from a female perspective. And usually, this would be all well and good. But Coppola, rather than hold to the idea that repressed sexual tension should be the catalyst for the events that follow McBurney’s arrival at the school, instead makes it all to do with a failing of manners and etiquette on the soldier’s part. This may not be the most obvious reading of the story, and it may not have been Coppola’s main intention in telling the story, but nevertheless, what comes across is a tale of one man’s refusal to accept implicitly the hospitality he has been given, and the consequences of taking that refusal to “behave” too far. When McBurney is seeking to fit in, and to reward his convalescence by helping in the garden, he’s a favoured “guest”. Once his true motives are revealed, his benefactors become his gaolers and his transgressions must be paid for. It’s Old Testament retribution wrapped up in New Testament flummery, but determined by an arch, emotional rigidity of manner that suits Coppola’s arthouse style of movie making but which does a cruel disservice to the material.

The issue of passion in Coppola’s remains unaddressed by the director herself, and though she elicits good performances from all concerned, the somewhat stuffy dialogue and repressive mood often defeats the cast’s attempts to break free of their acting “chains”. Farrell gets a chance to rage out, but against the restrained nature of the residents of Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies it’s like witnessing a sudden downpour on any otherwise brilliantly sunny day. The movie does, however, look wondrous, with exquisitely composed exterior shots (moss has rarely looked this beautiful) and tastefully lit interiors that hint of secrets hidden just out of frame. Against the backdrop of the US Civil War, there’s a pleasing sense of deliberate isolationism that may or may not be a reflection on modern US politics, and Coppola wisely exploits the notion of being careful of what you wish for, and on both sides of the gender divide. But all in all, there’s less here than meets the eye, and for that, one shouldn’t be too surprised.

Rating: 7/10 – though Coppola has deliberately dialled down the “hothouse” nature of Don Siegel’s original, The Beguiled lacks for enough passion to make the young ladies of the seminary, and their teachers’ emotional dilemmas, entirely believable; as a thriller it has its moments, and as a drama it’s riveting enough to get by, but technical achievements aside, it’s another movie where Coppola somehow manages to disengage herself from the material too often to provide viewers with a movie that retains an emotional through line.

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