SOFIA Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, begins with a young girl (Amy) singing as she picks mushrooms in the woods. Although it may seem insignificant, her voice marks an important shift in perspective compared to Don Siegel’s 1971 version of the story.
Siegel’s film, which was released just 44 days before Coppola was born, opens on an overtly masculine note. Black and white stills of the Civil War are set to the pounding sounds of a military drum and, soon after, the harsher noises of clanking machinery and gunfire. When we then fade to the young girl picking mushrooms – Coppola’s film opening – it is, instead, a male voice singing a folk song: ‘The Dove She is a Pretty Bird’.
Coppola’s shedding of Siegel’s blusterous opening in favour of a feminine tone-setter, is just the start of many deviations she makes – not just from Siegel’s work, but Thomas P Cullen’s 1966 novel. They work quite splendidly.
Even still, the core of Cullen’s narrative remains intact. Set in 1864 Virginia, The Beguiled tells the story of a Christian all-girls school which gives shelter to a severely injured (and runaway) Union solider named Corporal McBurney, played by Colin Farrell. He is discovered by Amy, played delightfully by Oona Laurence.
The girls live in constant fear as the Civil War rages in the distance – evidenced by the constant sound of cannon and blooms of dark smoke. As confederate supporters, an injured solider of the Union spells nothing but trouble. Should they hand him over or look after McBurney while his leg heals? They opt for the latter although ultimately it does not work out in the best interests of McBurney or for that matter his injured leg.
With his rugged good looks and flirtatious Irish charm, the enemy solider immediately becomes a figure of temptation for the virginal Southern Belles and their teachers. Among them is establishment owner Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), who is tasked with keeping her students in line while she battles with her own sexual urges and frustrations.
It is a role Kidman plays with incredible control, revealing momentary slips in her character’s otherwise poised and rehearsed demeanour. The moment when she is snubbed by McBurney outside his bedroom door is one to treasure.
Her assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is a vulnerable figure, one moment hopeful, the next desperate. Then there is flirty 18-year-old student Alicia (played faultlessly by Elle Fanning), who has given up on her French lessons and seems enthralled by the challenge of seducing an older man.
Feelings of jealousy and mistrust quickly shroud the house like the mist and mossy oaks outside as the women quietly vie for McBurney’s attention and affection. The result is a dangerous, domesticated civil war fought with lustful passing glances rather than the heavy-artillery cannons that can be heard booming in the distance.
It is in these moments – where Coppola’s camera cuts between all the telling looks – that the film excels. Best of all is a scene when the women gather upstairs to sing for McBurney. Without a word being said, a combination of feelings, longing, suspicion and envy are displayed by no more than an exchange of glances and micro-expressions.
With these interactions, Coppola leaves us to unpick the subtle psychological jousting at play – a game enhanced by Coppola’s hazy, dreamlike aesthetic of trapped sunlight and glowing candles.
All this is very different to Siegel’s version of the film. Under sweat-dripping sunlight there is no space shadowy delicacy. Instead, voiceovers and flashbacks forcefully clarify any slight ambiguities. This approach falls in line with the heavy handed symbolism lifted straight from the novel – for example, the injured crow tied to the house that cannot fly away.
Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of McBurney is also more clear-cut than Farrell’s. Although Eastwood, who would work with Spiegel on Dirty Harry in the same year, is immobile for most of the film, he still retains his macho-posturing and even finds time for a fist-fight.
In contrast, Farrell’s McBurney for the most part cuts a sly figure who revels in the task of emotionally manipulating the women that fawn over him. In turn, he woos Miss Matha and Edwina while basking in Alicia’s lustful attention. He even has Amy eating out of his hand although he does not go as far as to kiss the 12-year-old like Eastwood’s McBurney.
One character controversially omitted from Coppola’s film is African-American slave Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 version). The conversations that Eastwood’s McBurney and Hallie have about the ‘freedom’ of soldiers and slaves are perhaps the most engaging part of Siegel’s film. Coppola clearly felt she did not have sufficient space to accommodate Hallie and the traumas and issues that swirled around her.
Coppola’s version of The Beguiled is one of tight focus, engrossing atmosphere and delightful acting. I suggest you watch her version before Siegel’s because it spells out the goings on within the house in clearer terms.
The different perspectives on Cullen’s story act as reminder of why we need a diversity of voices in cinema. If Siegel film’s is the equivalent of a nose-grabbing aftershave, then Coppola’s is more akin to a seductive perfume. Paco Rabanne versus Chanel Number 5.
On this occasion, it is Coppola’s Chanel Number 5 that I find more beguiling.
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