The Beguiled is visually beautiful. A large white Virginia mansion sits surrounded by majestic trees dripping with moss. The women who inhabit this home are outfitted in gowns that would put Scarlett O’Hara to shame. Each scene, shot in gauzy, low light is mesmerizing, giving the entire film a dreamlike quality. Yet that exceptional cinematography cannot save a film whose storyline is demeaning to women. That the director is Sofia Coppola and the cast predominantly women only adds to the disappointment.
“I think just the power between men and women, which we can all relate to, is at the heart of the story,” Coppola said on the CBS Morning Show, explaining why she decided to do a remake of the 1971 film which starred Clint Eastwood. The earlier version did poorly at the box office after being marketed as a “hothouse melodrama” – “One man…seven women…in a strange house!” That setup, a group of women competing for the attention and love of a man, never falls to draw an audience, one reason why ABC’s The Bachelor is now in its 21st (!) season. Still, whether during the Civil War or in current time, seeing women scratch and claw each other to win a man is unseemly.
Seven women, ranging in age from seven to 40, are holed up in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Women, practicing their handwriting and studying French while trying to ignore the Civil War raging around them. The youngest girl, Amy (Oona Laurence) is gathering mushrooms in the forest when she happens upon a wounded Union soldier, Colonel McBurney (Colin Farrell). She helps him back to the mansion where he collapses. The school’s head, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides they should tend to his injuries before turning him into the Confederates. He’s placed on a bed in the music room which is kept locked. Miss Martha strips off his clothes and sponges away the dirt and blood on his body, her movements and facial expressions making it clear it’s been a long time since she’s seen a man. She also cleans out and stitches up the wound in his leg.
When he regains consciousness, McBurney tells the women he recently arrived in America from Ireland and, being short on cash, was paid to take another man’s place in the Union Army. Fighting for a cause he knew little about and didn’t believe in made it easy for him to desert when he was wounded. He wants the women to know that he’s not their enemy. (Eastwood’s character told the women he was a pacifist.) The women soon band together to protect McBurney from being turned in when Confederate soldiers stop in to check on Miss Martha and the others.
Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst
Although Miss Martha keeps telling McBurney he’s not a guest, he’s soon joining them at the table for dinner. The women dress for each occasion like they are dining with a prince. McBurney doesn’t disappoint, enjoying the food, particularly Amy’s mushrooms, and flirting with each woman. Although Miss Martha tries to keep things professional, there’s no doubt she’s attracted to him, too. But the major contenders are Edwina, the school’s second in command and teacher played by Kirsten Dunst, and Alicia, one of the older students played by Elle Fanning. McBurney plays one off against the other until his manipulations backfire with disastrous consequences.
Despite the fact that the film is set during the Civil War, Coppola made the curious decision to jettison one of the characters, a slave, Hallie, played in the original by Mae Mercer, which sparked some fascinating and heated exchanges with Eastwood’s McBurney. Hallie and the women (a cast headed by Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman) dressed in work clothes, not ball gowns, and toiled in the fields in order to supply their food. In Coppola’s version, not only do we wonder where all the mansion’s food comes from (aside from Amy’s mushrooms), but also ponder who spends time washing and ironing all those dresses?
Coppola’s work was recognized with a best director’s award at Cannes, which certainly is a boost to women directors battling for equity in Hollywood. And the cast (which also includes Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard) delivers strong performances. Too bad the plot didn’t present women in a better light.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features