It was a man's world in 1971 when Clint Eastwood starred in The Beguiled, a Southern gothic thriller that's as misogynistic in hindsight as old movies can be.
A half-century later, director Sofia Coppola presents the feminist morality tale at the core of The Beguiled that Eastwood's macho image and society in general wouldn't allow at the time. In 1971, he played a charmer-turned-victim; now the character is a manipulator who'll get what he deserves.
Colin Farrell more adept than Eastwood at playing such men, so his casting as injured Union soldier John McBurney is smart except for an Irish accent needing to be explained away. As the Civil War winds down, McBurney is discovered in a Virginia forest by Amy (Oona Laurence ), the youngest of several girls at a nearby seminary run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).
McBurney charms Amy into taking him there, to avoid being captured by Confederate troops. John's arrival as an enemy but more importantly a man electrifies the all-female household, even Martha who agrees to let John stay out of Confederate custody. Purely for Christian reasons although after sponge bathing the unconscious man, maybe not.
The school's teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), shares Martha's sexual repression and concern for John's health. When he's better, perhaps John would whisk Edwina away from her dissatisfied life at the seminary. Oldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning) is sexually awakened by John's presence while others develop tamer infatuations.
John notices their attention and begins exploiting it, at first merely to extend his stay and eventually for more intimate purposes. John's intentions remain too guarded by Farrell's performance, at times only a slight expression shy of suggesting he's dishonest. On the other hand, Fanning oozes Alicia's intent through coquettish pouts and poses. The film's best turn comes from Dunst, whose dourness brightens a tad each time Edwina converses with John or catches his glance.
In both versions The Beguiled is a slim tale, more dread than terror. Yet while Siegel's movie carried the sweet smell of schlock Coppola's version nearly chokes on its own prestige. This is certainly a gorgeous production, filmed in mossy shadow by Philippe Le Sourd and artfully costumed by Stacey Battat. But if any material deserves hysteria, it's this, some over-the-top rebuttal to Coppola's reserve.
Take for example Kidman's performance, the only comparison with the 1971 movie not falling in the new version's favor. She's fine but Geraldine Page's portrayal of Martha is more effective since she's older, not as attractive. We understand why McBurney would flirt with a woman as lovely as Kidman (or Dunst versus Elizabeth Hartman for that matter). Eastwood hitting on older, spinsterish women makes McBurney's motivation more unsavory, the women's submission more pathetic and their revenge sweeter. Everyone in Coppola's The Beguiled is almost too pretty to believe.
Yet it's interesting to see a male perspective movie about women like Siegel's The Beguiled reconsidered by a modern woman as Coppola does. Her movie is another step forward for femme-centric cinema in a summer of several.
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