Yesterday I had the chance to see one of the most buzz worthy films of the summer: The Beguiled, directed by Sophia Coppola. Heavily praised out of Cannes Film Festival and by many critics I went into it with some enthusiasm. I even watched the original 1971 film for Hit Me With Your Best Shot to get ready. Coming out of the film I wasn’t all that thrilled with it. The Beguiled is ok but not as good as the original and Coppola makes a lot of weird choices I didn’t understand that made it more languid and removed much of the tension. This was a thriller without any thrills.
Let’s start with the positives. First of all, The Beguiled is a gorgeous film and it is worth seeing for the stunning cinematography, lighting, production design and costumes alone. All of these aspects are significant improvements upon the original. I love how it felt like candlelight and it reminded me of The Others (a favorite of mine) in the way it used light and shadow to create mood. If it isn’t nominated for best costumes at the Oscars that will be a real travesty.
I also think the acting is all good. It’s what Coppola does with the performances that is the problem. All of the ladies do a decent job with what they are given. I have issues with Colin Farrell’s character but it isn’t really his fault. Again, he does a good job with what he is given.
Now to talk about the problems…and unfortunately that begins with the way Farrell’s character is written. In the 1971 film Corporal John McBurney is an obvious predator that fixates quickly on the most plain girl in the house, Edwina (more on her in a minute). He does this at the same time the more striking Alicia is throwing herself at him. This builds tension so much more than the over-all nice guy this version shows. I didn’t really buy most of the decisions he makes here as they seemingly came out of nowhere.
For example, one scene that is missing from the original is where McBurney tries to seduce the house slave. She is the only one who is in on his game and will have nothing to do with him. It makes it clear this is not a nice man, which makes the tone feel scary as you worry about the women of the house. In this version, Coppola decided to eliminate the slave character completely. I understand why she did it for PC reasons, but I think it hurt McBurney’s character development and made all the girls feel similar since there was no contrasting presence.
Now getting to the girls. The character development for them is sadly also lacking. Edwina is supposed to be very plain and Kirsten Dunst is far too pretty to play this part. The plain appearance is important because like I said it makes McBurney’s advances more creepy and his seductions more alluring to the homely Edwina. Here her decisions don’t seem to match with the rest of her character or personality and her stunning dresses don’t help in making her feel mousy either!
It goes the same with the other women. Alicia is not developed at all when in the original she is a real vixen tempting McBurney. The school matron Martha played by Nicole Kidman is also written very flatly. In the original she is a sexual deviant with a strange twisted past. Here she is a nice Southern lady trying to protect her girls. It just doesn’t have the same tension or thrills because their choices are way more predictable and obvious.
I appreciate that Coppola wanted to make a story about women but why not write them as complex characters with interesting backstories and motivations? Or if you aren’t going that route make the situations the stock characters are in scary and fun. Neither is the case here. I wonder if she felt afraid to make her characters more flawed, as the original does, for fear of it not being seen as empowering or a feminist film? Who knows but I don’t get it?
It’s hard without spoilers but there is also a scene where Martha is forced to make a decision and in the original film it is clear she does not need to make that choice. However, here it is the opposite. It is portrayed that if she does not make the choice McBurney will die. This does not work because McBurney’s anger at these ‘crazy women’ seems unjustified when in the original it is definitely not. According to this film they’ve just saved his life but he turns into an insane person. It’s a scene (and final 3rd of the film) that should have been full of tension but it’s not because all the ambiguity has been lost.
This will sound weird but this version is oddly more pg13ish than the original. More often than not, it plays it safe and doesn’t explore darker themes or twisted character motivations like it could have. It makes it kind of boring and predictable.
All that said, it’s not an awful movie. It is pretty and worth watching for the visuals alone but I just can’t figure out why Coppola made choices that seemed to neuter her gothic thriller? Watch this film and then watch the original, and I think you will see what I mean. This is a nice looking film but a thriller it is not.
Overall Grade- C+
As far as content there is a little bit of blood and brief sensuality but I’m not even sure why it is rated R to be honest. It seemed about the same as My Cousin Rachel and that is a pg-13. The original is way more R rated.