During the civil war, a runaway unionist soldier (Colin Farrell) is found by a young girl who brings him back to her all-girl boarding school. After the two remaining teachers (Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman) have fixed up his wounds they must contemplate whether to hand him over to the confederate army, let him run away, or perhaps even keep him. Divisions appear as the soldier works his masculine magic with the group of women.
That is the premise to Sofia Coppola’s new movie. If it sounds familiar, that might be because Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel was previously adapted by action director Don Siegel, with his long-time collaborator Clint Eastwood in the role of the soldier.
This certainly seems like it could be typical Siegel fare. A lone wanderer enters into a small troubled community, causing tension which leads to some form of violent resolution. So far, so Eastwood. The Beguiled (2017), however, is a subversive story in that the real threat to the characters comes from within the house. The tension of the movie comes from not knowing who to sympathise with or where the danger lies. Because character motivations are obscured from the audience perhaps it is we who are…The Beguiled!
Only less so with the Siegel version. Siegel uses unsettling music and very ominous lighting and staging to assure us that loveable Eastwood is not in a safe place and that he must keep his wits about him with these crazy dames! He is then able to subvert our expectations, going into the second act, by revealing that Eastwood might not be quite so loveable as his stubbly beard suggests.
Coppola takes a very different approach to the long dead action director. The atmosphere is a little frostier, but also less portentous. It’s unclear where the tale is going as the various women get closer to the ailing soldier. This creates a very different form of tension. Coppola’s loftier production design and more detached cinematography keeps us at a distance from the characters. When telling a tale of shady people and duplicity, this can be a very good thing. But it is also important that we the audience care for someone.
The acting is also a little stagier in the newer film. There’s a great naturalism to Eastwood and Geraldine Page that’s a little more flamboyant in the remake. There’s also something just a little more upsetting when Eastwood breaks bad. The Man with No Name drinking and hollering is a striking sight. Whereas, we all know Farrell can be an asshole.
Sofia Coppola has used the same source material to make a very different kind of film. One that is more ambiguous and unsettling, but also perhaps just a little less human than Don Siegel’s effort.