Cannes 2017 review: The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)

In an age when Hollywood cinema is becoming creatively and imaginatively exhausted, filmmakers have increasingly become seduced by the possibility of remakes. In order to deviate from the pack, there is pressure for a remake to discover new themes in its treatment of its source, or at least to find a way to tell its story that hadn’t already been seen, especially if the original’s explorations are already conclusive. Arriving forty-six years after Don Siegel’s gothic camp classic, Sofia Coppola’s retelling of Thomas P. Cullinan’s The Beguiled considers the same themes, and even if it may not bring many new insights, brings a smart subtlety and polish that earns this second look.

Three years into the American Civil War, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary fighting for the Yankees, escapes the Confederate army after being shot in the leg. While foraging for wild mushrooms in the adjacent forest, Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the students in a sparsely attended school for girls run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), discovers him. Instead of letting him die in the forest, taking pity on the wounded soldier and declaring it their Christian duty, Martha decides to take John into their home and turn him over to the Confederates as soon as the risk of sepsis or gangrene has passed. Making calculated efforts to make each of these women feel special, John slowly earns their trust and their lust. As the women grow comfortable with the prospect of finally having a man around the house, not only do they begin to question the nuances of what defines an enemy, they being to mistake each other for their nemeses.

By virtue of being a more literal adaptation of Cullinan’s novel, Coppola’s version of The Beguiled trims some of the campier elements that weigh down Don Siegel’s take on the material. Evidently, Coppola realizes that the story is already pulpy enough to be gleefully entertaining, and that there is enough room within the inherent material to consider the sexual dynamics that arise when John’s rooster enters Martha’s henhouse, without having to duplicate some of the more outrageous plotting (incest, dreamed orgies, and indications of potential pedophilia) in Siegel’s outing. Typical of a Sofia Coppola film, production is lavish, and no shot is wasted as an opportunity to dazzle or establish the tone.

An instrumental part of why The Beguiled works so well is thanks to a dynamic ensemble with great chemistry. Each member of this cast brings assurance to his or her part, and in a story about women divided by the competition for a man’s attention, that no actress tries to dominate a scene speaks to the insight that these women need to be unified, and all of them happily pass the baton to one another as they keep the momentum of The Beguiled‘s coy, sharp humour in full swing. Both leads play their characters quite differently than their predecessors: Geraldine Page’s characterization of Martha was more of a desperate, matronly Southern belle starved for validation, while Kidman’s Martha is more introverted, conflicted, and independent; Colin Farrell’s John is less immediately and charmingly devious than Clint Eastwood’s.

Coppola’s reading of The Beguiled may not discover themes that did not already exist in Siegel’s adaptation, but in choosing to explore them with more subtlety, hers is an adaptation that can confidently stand apart. Though often legitimately probing, Coppola’s The Beguiled avoids the error of mistaking its ideas for being more clever or profound than they are, and excels in keeping this foray neatly frenzied and wildly compelling.