Don Siegel’s 1971 The Beguiled is a much loved classic, telling the story of a Union soldier holed up in a boarding school, where he beguiles each of the females and earns his comeuppance. So what would Sofia Coppola, one of a handful of female directors in competition in Cannes, bring to the story that is new by viewing it from a woman’s perspective? The answer is: very little.
Coppola remains faithful to the novel and the original screenplay, as we follow Amy (Oona Laurence) into the woods to forage for her infamous mushrooms. She’s a little red riding hood toting her basket all alone in the humid forest and she is about to stumble upon John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wolf in Yankee clothing. As Amy helps the injured deserter back to her school, we meet the rest of the ladies: Martha (Nicole Kidman), the headmistress, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher, and the other four pupils. And so we move from Little Red Riding Hood to the Wolf and the Seven Little Goats. Any child can tell you that the wolf always comes off badly in these tales, and The Beguiled continues the tradition.
As John swiftly works his testosterone magic among the group, we see what a great manipulator he is: with Amy he’s the older brother she’s lost and is her firm friend. With Martha, he is all admiration for her strength and courage, while with Edwina he sniffs out her desire for freedom. The rest of the girls – the oldest being Alicia (Elle Fanning) – need no tricks, for they fall under his spell pretty quickly. Most of them have lost someone and are missing fathers, brothers and fiancés. Add to the mix the constrictive space of the school and raging hormones, and John’s work is done for him. It’s not so much a fairy tale setting as a highly sexualised Little Women.
There are some wonderful lines in Coppola’s script and she is good and highlighting the girls’ petty jealousy as they try to woo their captive beau. Suddenly, hair is woven more tightly and brooches and earrings embellish the girls. Many of the dinner scenes are particularly funny, especially the one concerning Edwina’s brazenly bare shoulders. As the matriarch, Kidman is a combination of southern grace and tough governance, coquettishly reverting to speaking French and then piercing a girl with a harsh barb of a line. And she clearly likes a tipple.
What works less well is the depiction of their situation. The war has been going for three years, yet the girls are pristine and have food and wine aplenty, as well as an abundance of candles. Although the slaves are long gone, they don’t look like they do much hard labour (as Alicia so hilariously depicts as she hoes the garden in desultory fashion). There’s a cow that provides them with cream and butter, yet we never see anyone caring for it. The original was dirtier and sweatier; this film is a little too pristine. The rebellious and sex-starved Alicia has two scruffy strands of hair permanently dangling in front of her face to represent her unruly character that I would have gladly hacked off with a pair of scissors. And perhaps the girls are too one-dimensional, each given a trait: plain one, the plump one, the southern snob, etc. More complicated personalities would have made for more interesting viewing. Having said that, the young cast are excellent, particularly Addison Riecke as Marie and Laurence as Amy.
Long-term Coppola collaborator Dunst is such a reliable screen presence and she puts in yet another fine performance for her director. Kidman and Farrell were a couple in Cannes yesterday in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and they are fantastic in both. What a treat to see Farrell get his teeth into two such interesting characters. So, Coppola hasn’t brought anything new to the table, but when this cast of characters are sitting at one, we are happy to join them.