This is billed as an adaptation by Sofia Coppola of the novel by Thomas Cullinan and a previous screenplay by Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp) – which was filmed by Don Siegel in 1971. Such credits aren’t uncommon, though few go as far as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho – or Richard Thorpe’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) – in just refilming a previous script based on a novel. In the context of a director-star collaboration that includes Coogan’s Bluff, Dirty Harry and Escape From Alcatraz, Siegel’s The Beguiled – with Clint Eastwood surrounded by neurotic ageing or embryo Southern belles in a gothic old dark house literally a few fields removed from the Civil War Western which might have been expected – was an odd film out, a venture into arthouse Americana from studio stalwarts who were being indulged on the understanding that they’d make a shoot ’em up next. However, in the context of Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre, and her recurring collaboration with Kirsten Dunst, this new version seems much more squarely the work of its auteure … as in The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette, we’re in a hothouse of rich white girl privilege besieged by danger and death, where mannered interactions mask deeper feelings and odd, flirty comedy of manners exchanges over dinner tables can shade into horrors.
Coppola, unfashionably, tends to find variant styles to suit her subjects – here, she avoids the flourishes of Marie Antoinette (no off-period music) and holds back on the dreamy eroticism of The Virgin Suicides (Elle Fanning as the Lolita type isn’t nude in her love scene with the soldier, as Jo Ann Harris was in Siegel’s film (a memorable bit of framing involves shifting Harris’s bottom to disclose the disapproving spinster peeping in on the naughtiness – a sly, farcical touch that gives the man’s POV Coppola withholds). With the rumble of guns in the near distance, Confederate schoolgirl Amy (Oona Laurence) finds wounded Union Army corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) – not strictly a Yankee, since he was fresh off the boat from Dublin when he signed up (suggesting Coppola saw Gangs of New York) – and helps him back to the school presided over by come-down-in-the-world stick Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) with plumper, cowed Edwina (Dunst) as assistant and five pupils (vivid cameos for Angourie Rice,Addison Riecke and Emma Howard fill out the class). Eastwood’s McBurney was a deserter and a liar – claiming to be a Quaker who carried only bandages but shown to be an arson-spreading ravager – but Farrell’s just seems to want out of a war he’s never had any commitment to. In an early scene, Kidman gets to spongebath a comatose Farrell – who has seriously got back into shape since he flabbed out for The Lobster – and the whole film tends to treat him as an object of desire with almost vestigial, contradictory thoughts of his own. At times, he’s a courteous swain, a practical gardener, a sly lech, an incipient tyrant, an embittered (symbolic?) castrato and a victim in a giallo-like House of Psychotic Women.
It’s a dry banquet of a film, restrained in its approach (the goriest incident is offscreen) and pared down in its cast (Coppola cuts several characters – including a slave servant, which has prompted accusations of whitewashing) and settings, with an evocative sparse score by Pheonix (drawing on Montiverdi and the folk song ‘Lorena’) and a smoky period feel (Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography is quite distinct from the sepia look of Bruce Surtees) that fits in with recent female-skewing Western gothics like The Keeping Room (a movie that might almost have inherited the slave Coppola omits), Brimstone (with Fanning’s sister Dakota) and Slow West. It’s a remake which doesn’t set out to supplant an earlier version (not that Siegel’s The Beguiled has stuck around in pop culture the way Dirty Harry has) but to sit beside it as an episode-from-Rashomon-like different angle on the story. Comparisons are inevitable, and there’s a sense that the grown-up characters/actors here are less vivid than Siegel’s choices – a scary-eyebrowed Kidman and a dowdied-down Dunst are like portraits of real people, whereas Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman – one of the actressiest actors of her generation and a self-evidently fragile neurotic (Hartman committed suicide in 1987) – inhabit Martha and Edwina to an uncanny degree. Coppola, however, gets her little girls to be much more convincing – charming, transparent (the tot who puts on earrings to give the wounded soldier a prayer-book), cruel, resilient and strange.