Film & Television

‘The Beguiled’: Taking Southern Hospitality to a New Level

On the other hand, the new version of The Beguiled (Coppoloa is adamant that her film is not a “remake”) is presented from the point of view of the women. The war is always present, smoke or cannon fire on the periphery, but never directly experienced. The Farnsworth Seminary still feels like a cage, but a gilded one. Its inhabitants are not under the same constant threat and therefore life within its gates has a quiet otherworldly feel, as though nothing has been altered even as the world has completely changed. The girls take turns keeping watch from the mansion’s balcony using an elegant old spy glass. The metaphor is obvious. They are on a ship in dangerous uncharted waters, but they are still in command. Until, of course, they bring in McBurney.

Coppola does a wonderful job evoking the long, lazy days of summertime in the American south. The women are dressed in gauzy white dresses which wilt like their wearers in the unrelenting heat. (I was reminded of another atmospheric classic, Peter Weir’s 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock.) No matter how solid the mansion’s columns are, or how carefully the girls adhere to the rules of etiquette, nature in this place can’t be tamed. Behind the lace curtains and candlelight, there is always earthy decay.

In addition to changing the perspective of the story, Coppola has excluded key elements. The source material included hints about the headmistress’s incestuous relationship with her brother, a lurid detail which fueled the earlier movie’s soft-porn feeling. The story is better without it. But, there has been some controversy surrounding Coppola’s decision to cut “Hallie,” the last remaining slave at Farnsworth. The director defended her choice, explaining that the character as written was a stereotype and that including her story — and doing it justice — would require making a different movie.

Having focused and streamlined the plot, Coppola chose a really marvelous cast. Nicole Kidman is majestic as “Miss Martha” Farnsworth. She is fearless digging shot out of McBurney’s gaping wound and stitching his leg back up again. Yet, she feels faint as she bathes her patient and has to expose herself to his … well … manhood (literal and figurative). To protect her brood, she will stop at nothing. But, she maintains her composure at all times and even introduces a bit of dark humor later as she holds McBurney’s life in her hands.

Kirsten Dunst, a favorite of the director’s since her 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, is intense and genuinely moving as “Miss Edwina,” the school’s sole teacher and a disappointed spinster. Fascinated by their visitor, Edwina plays into his hands with an almost-knowing desperation. He’s her last hope and she’s willing to overlook quite a lot to hold onto him. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning, in one of her first grownup roles, is careless to the point of danger, as Alicia, a student who has come of age during the war. She’s lusty and curious, and McBurney will be her first carnal experiment. The other students are portrayed by the frosty Anjourie Rice, petulant Addison Rieke, wide-eyed Emma Howard, and stand-out little Oona Laurence, as Amy, McBurney’s “first and best friend,” pivotal in having brought him to the school and in eventually getting him to leave.

The character of McBurney has been modified to accommodate Irish actor Colin Farrell. He’s an immigrant soldier-for-hire, making him simultaneously more and less sympathetic to the Confederate women. He is a charming opportunist and significantly less hateful than Eastwood’s 1961 counterpart. He is desperate and even violent when crossed, but he doesn’t threaten the women and apologizes for his behavior once he’s sober. However, they realize they are in real danger simply by harboring him (if he returns to the nothern army, the school will be invaded by the enemy; if he is captured by the southerners, they are guilty of treason for hiding him). The final actions of the movie follow those of the book and earlier film. But, Coppola leaves us with more ambiguity. In this battle of the sexes, where is the point of no return? Does McBurney deserve his fate? Does self-preservation justify Miss Martha’s decisions? Or, as he accuses her, is she just upset because it wasn’t her room he went to in the middle of the night?

The Beguiled was an interesting choice for Coppola, and I’m so glad she decided to make it. (Apparently, the judges at this year’s Cannes Film Festival agree; they awarded her Best Director.) Her sixth feature film, The Beguiled is an interesting and feminist take on some fairly sexist and exploitative material (the original was kind of a 19th century sorority sister slasher). The young ladies at Farnsworth Seminary are not as gentle or genteel as they appear. They decide their own fate and, ultimately, the fate of their guest. And they do so in beautiful, moody, high gothic style. You’ll enjoy watching Miss Martha, Miss Edwina, and their students redefine southern hospitality.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.