Movie Review: The Beguiled

In 1971, Don Siegel (the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS; DIRTY HARRY; ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ) directed an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 Southern Gothic thriller, entitled THE BEGUILED. The film starred Clint Eastwood who took on the role of the wounded Yankee soldier because it allowed him to play against type. Audiences didn’t buy it, however, and although critics like the movie, it flopped at the box office. Now, 46 years later, Oscar®-winning director Sophia Coppola (LOST IN TRANSLATION) has taken on the story but this version of THE BEGUILED is not a remake. It’s another adaptation. This time around, the story is told from the female perspective… and a few characters have changed.

The story takes place at the Farnsworth Seminary in Virginia, an educational institution of sorts founded and sternly run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, GRACE OF MONACO; PADDINGTON; LION). With the US Civil War so close that you can hear the cannon roar off in the distance, almost everyone has left the girls’ school. Besides Miss Farnsworth, there are only five girls remaining at the school as well as their teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst, HIDDEN FIGURES). Isolated from the world around them, life and lessons go on and they all manage to make the best of a less than ideal situation. That is until John McBurney (Colin Farrell, THE LOBSTER; FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM), a Union Army corporal, is found in the nearby woods by student Amy (Oona Laurence). Wounded in the leg, Amy brings him back to the school much to the consternation of not only Miss Farnsworth but everyone else there. He’s a Yankee, after all, and they don’t trust Yankees. Nevertheless, Miss Farnsworth decides to tend to John’s wound and wait until he recovers before they decide what to do with him.

John is grateful for Miss Farnsworth’s kindness and he’s as sweet as a slice of pecan pie on the fourth of July to all of them. He knows exactly what to say to each one and, one by one, they change their opinion of him. Before long, they even start to vie for his attention, wearing what little jewelry they have, their nicest dresses, and bringing him treats. But the good times don’t last long and, one night, when John is caught in student Alicia’s (Elle Fanning, TRUMBO) bedroom, the welcome mat gets rolled up. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, imagine what it would be like if seven women are scorned.

Coppola, who became the first woman in over 50 years to win the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has made a very entertaining movie and all the performances here are excellent. The film is evocative and mysterious yet it’s often amusing. The scenes where both the girls and the women each try to impress John with their contribution to a lavish dinner they prepared for him are quite funny to watch. If there are weaknesses to the film, the first is that it’s not thrilling enough, which the original film and the book were. When the women act against him, it’s all left off-screen and it’s over all too soon. I would have preferred the third act to have been longer and more sensational. As well, because the story is told from the female perspective, we’re not given any insight into John’s motivations. When he’s nice to the girls and to the women, it’s obvious to us that he’s playing them all but to what end? He clearly doesn’t want to go back to the war but we don’t know why. Will he be shot for desertion? If he stays, what does he want to have happen? It’s all left up in the air.

That being said, THE BEGUILED is still worth your time and money. Go see it!

Watch the review recorded in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Facebook Live!

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