The Yankee Civil War soldier John McBurney has made the rounds. He was the central character in Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel “The Beguiled,” the wounded man who seeks refuge in an isolated girls’ boarding school in the South, eventually becoming a prisoner of both the physical place and the jealousies of the young and not-so-young women there. He was played by Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel’s 1971 film adaptation of the book. Eastwood, then already done with his spaghetti Western phase, wasn’t yet the star he would soon become, but he played the part well. It was a low-key, convincingly steamy “B” movie that has been largely forgotten.
One good reason to remake a film is to tell the story in a different way for a different generation. Another reason is to take what might be a bad movie, or in the case of “The Beguiled,” a pretty good one, and make it even better. Sofia Coppola’s new version, which she directed and wrote, fails on both counts. It sticks, almost scene for scene, to the first film, and within those scenes, she has sanitized what gave the first one an edge. She has tamped down the story’s central focus: Overt sexual tension.
It’s Virginia, 1864. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a bullet wound in his leg almost totally disabling him, is brought back to the once-grand old mansion that’s now serving as a boarding school for only five young students and one teacher, run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).
A couple of the girls are outraged that an “enemy soldier” is allowed entry and given medical help by her. A couple others find him rather attractive. The interest of one of them goes beyond just attractiveness.
But it’s the reaction of the school’s owner that provides the film’s initial intrigue. After removing the bullet, stitching him up, and moving a bed for him into the school’s music room, there’s a long, silent scene of her giving the unconscious, shirtless soldier a sponge bath, and almost swooning. Hmmm, where is this movie heading? Unfortunately, not where you would think.
The plan is to nurse him back to health before turning him over to the Confederate Army, but while he slowly recovers, each of the girls — the oldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) — as well as the lone teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), takes a turn at finding an excuse to visit him in the music room, just for a glance or a brief chat. There’s really no reason for any of them to fear him, as he’s polite, full of gratitude, and still bedridden. Farrell plays the part even meeker than his role in “The Lobster.”
He actually attempts to have a casual conversation with the curious, shy, and stern Farnsworth, but gets nowhere. He tries flattery on Edwina, which almost scares her off, as she most certainly hasn’t been around many men. But it’s Alicia, who definitely has been around men, who makes something of a move on him: A quick goodnight kiss when no one else is around.
All of the makings are here for a potboiler, but Coppola holds back. She introduces little hints of jealousy here and there, and adds some comic effect when McBurney, eventually getting around on a cane, is invited to dine with the women, and each of them tries to out-gussy the other with fancy clothing.
He privately confesses his love to one of them, he even more privately acts on a carnal urge with another one, and then the film explodes into retaliatory violence, but does so with hardly any buildup. The premise that the pent-up or in some cases non-existent emotions of these women, have suddenly gone roiling out of control is glossed over, not earned. Their actions and reactions just aren’t convincing. The film is well acted and good looking, but instead of being infused with believably uncontrolled passion, it feels muted, and falls flat.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
With Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning