The Beguiled: Befuddling

Remake of Southern Gothic thriller is star-powered yet disappointing

When Sofia Coppola, the daring writer-director behind The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette, decided to remake the 1971 Southern Gothic thriller The Beguiled, one would reasonably assume that she had something fresh to say with the story. I am sad to report that, despite a rather star-powered cast that includes Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, this pointless remount wastes that talent, as well as that of Ms. Coppola, in a beautifully photographed yet empty movie.

Set in a rural Virginia girls’ school in the waning days of the Civil War, The Beguiled focuses on a group of lonely, isolated, and understandably frightened women scratching out an existence amid desolation and constant peril. Into this feverish environment comes John McBurney (Farrell, in a role originated by Clint Eastwood), a badly wounded Union soldier who has fled the front lines, which are just miles away. The women take him in and tend to his injuries, mindful of the potential threat he represents to their cloistered community.

Indeed, McBurney’s very presence soon has an unsettling effect on the household. For the younger girls in the school, he is simply a curiosity. But the stern headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Kidman), sees McBurney as the enemy, while also being compelled to display her ingrained Southern hospitality. For Edwina (Durst), the spinsterish teacher, the soldier represents a possible escape from her stultifying life. And for sexually-hungry teen Alicia (Fanning), he is an object of conquest. Needless to say, there are a lot of warring emotions and motivations at play.

The problem, from a cinematic perspective, is that all of this feels disappointingly rote. The female characters have no real interior lives; they are types designed to create an atmosphere of rivalry and suspicion. Similarly, there are no convincing nor consistent motives for McBurney’s actions either. The result is a story that merely goes through the motions, which detracts from the tension we as viewers are supposed to feel.

Coppola, who also wrote the screenplay, does herself and her film no favors with the torpid direction. The tense situations within the plantation house are interspersed with languid exterior shots, dripping with Spanish moss and a wispy blanket of Southern mist. It’s beautiful the first few times, but it quickly becomes almost laughable.

The entire film has a feeling of paint-by-numbers: This is what a Civil War thriller is supposed to look like; this is how repressed women are supposed to behave; this is how a recovering soldier would act in such a situation. As such, it fails to connect the viewer to the characters or the material.
The Beguiled, ultimately, is both airless and joyless, and a crushing disappointment given the talent involved.