When a musical adaptation leaves audiences wondering why in the world makers thought they needed to musicalize it in the first place, insiders call it a “why musical.” Remember this fun fact as we explore The Beguiled—both the Sofia Coppola-helmed version opening this weekend and the one that predates it by four-plus decades.
In 1971, Clint Eastwood starred for director Don Siegel in one of the eeriest, trippiest, and best movies of his entire career—a Southern Gothic fairytale adapted from a Thomas P. Cullinan novel by screenwriters Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp and Claude Traverse. Nobody would call it a why movie. Set during the War Between the States, it begins with a 12-year-old girl discovering the near-death body of a handsome young Yankee soldier (Eastwood) in the forest. They converse briefly, and a creepy rapport builds between them. Then she kneels beside him and he kisses her passionately—and we’re off to the races. She leads him back to her place of residence, a rundown, forgotten Louisiana seminary heavy with moss, fog and the dark stirrings of sexual yearning. Each of the women sheltering there—recent young widows, sisters of dead soldiers, orphaned children—reacts differently to the wounded soldier. But they all wind up lusting after him in one way or another. And then things get stranger and sicker.
It’s a slight story—a dash of Poe, a bit of Ambrose Bierce, a load of the brothers Grimm. With Siegel at the helm, Eastwood giving one of the best reactive performances of his life and Geraldine Page unforgettable in a clash of wills with the wayward soldier, the film has the staying power of a nightmare.
Sofia Coppola has directed and scripted a new take on the material, casting Colin Farrell in the role of wounded, canny soldier John McBurney, Nicole Kidman in the role of the headmistress of the all-female boarding school and her Marie Antoinette costar Kirsten Dunst in the plum role first played by the fragile, unsettling Elizabeth Harman. Coppola’s movie has lots going for it, but it’s still a why movie. The burning question: Why did she want to make it in the first place? The new Beguiled is wreathed in fog and lit by candlelight, but it’s too damn genteel, juiceless and Bechdel-conscious for its own good.
McBurney is the rascally devil, slyly pitting the women against each other, currying favor, working his wiles and manipulating them like a maestro. He’s a loving papa to one, a sweet brotherly playmate to another and a rakish seducer to at least three others. Meanwhile, the women go about their chores, and they’re almost hypnotic to watch as they pick mushrooms in the woods, set the table, braid their hair and pose for tableaux like movie stars gussied up for a magazine photo shoot. The Civil War rages and these women are living by the skin of their teeth; yet, with Philippe Le Sourd’s sumptuous cinematography, one look at the half-naked Farrell’s sleeping face, long hair flopping in his eyes, his eyelashes longer than any of the women’s, and the gals are breaking out their best jewels, immaculate lingerie and perfectly pressed ball gowns. No one who knows the novel or the earlier movie version will be surprised by any of what happens here. Events unfold slowly and quietly, but with no particular spin or take, no special richness, deeper insight or unexpected revelations from the characters. These women, like the movie, show you who they are and that’s it.
Still, there are performances that break through all the lace and daintiness. Kidman does great work here, camping it up when the spirit moves her but mostly giving the role a quiet weirdness and gravitas that makes her every moment compelling. She throws a look across a dinner table that is the stuff of award nominations. Kirsten Dunst, who is having a great run again thanks to Fargo and Midnight Special, reminds us how very good she is. Wealthy, spinsterish and the most decent of the characters, she’s sad, touching and haunting. Farrell, too, is terrific, a charm monster who gets one of the nastiest, funniest lines of the movie: “You vengeful bitches!”
The Beguiled is fun, yes, and we’re all for nuance. But for what is essentially a Southern horror movie, it’s too hermetically sealed, wispy and careful to grab you by the throat the way it should.