What I felt most surprised by in The Beguiled was the simplicity of its story arc and setting. The atmospherics Sophia Copolla creates seep out of the screen so well, with its quiet malevolence, moody lighting, and the on-edge performances of its characters, that by the movie’s end, that same technical brilliance completely outweighed any attempt at a rapturous story.
Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled has been done before, by Don Seigel in a Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page starring film in 1971, but to very different ends. Seigel, an action director, was very much in favor of creating a film that amped up the drama and twists of the storyline, giving Eastwood a meaty role and playing the sexual and violent nature of the characters, to the backdrop of the Civil War that much more in-your-face. In other words, Seigel and Eastwood envisioned a clear political and social motive to the film, and that was not to be mistaken or forgotten.
Copolla’s rendition is closer to a beautifully decorated stage play. The backdrop of the Civil War, which features prominently in the Cullinan novel, remains a far distant event here, sputtering in and out of our ears with soft booms. The fact that McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a Union soldier and the Girls Home is clearly South-aligned is merely an inconvenience between the sexual tension that is unmistakable from the get-go. The politics of the war, the people who’s livelihoods it is centered around (black slaves), and the idea of war, the death and destruction and loss and hate that surrounds it, are all either thrown into the back as minor topics or erased from the film’s world altogether.
Instead, the biggest nod to any politics in the film lies in the gender-relations at play between different girls reactions and perceptions of the Corporal, which can be thought of in stages of how we experience and react to love growing up. The youngest girl looks up to Corporal McBurney as a father figure, the second-youngest has a kiddie crush, the middle girl is skeptical and antagonistic towards him, the teenager (Elle Fanning) is experiencing sexual attraction lit by a sense of rebellion for the first time, the second-oldest (Kirsten Dunst, easily the films best performance) really falls in love and imagines a future with him, and the oldest (Nicole Kidmann) treats him as a stranger only later warming up to his presence.
Not much is made of these, however, as the film follows a familiar path of a man caught between the love of multiple women. Instead, Coppola’s visual canvas remains the central artistic pillar of her film. The movie grows darker, literally in its lighting and art direction, as the passions of the girls start to swell up into maddening jealousy and a singular decision by the Corporal flares up into an impending doom for everyone. The sunlit gardens and bright pink and white dresses waving through the Virginia greenery give way now to faded dull pastels and a monotone cloudy sky. Normally I’m incredibly favorable to films which centralize their visuals, but those still need to be at the service of the story. If the look of the film and the building of its world are its greatest strengths, they need to be complimented with themes and ideas of equal vibrancy.
This is not to say that The Beguiled isn’t good, but considering the densely political layering of Cullinan’s novel, and the brooding intensity of the Seigel adaptation, Coppola’s decision to go minimalist in terms of story here seems less a brave decision and more a head-scratching one. There’s no Tarkovskian metaphysics at play, so what we end up with is a decent story of jealousy and fear played with a straight face and beautiful scenery, but lacking in the density needed to make a lasting impression.