'The Beguiled': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Not so beguiling.

Sofia Coppola remakes a 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film, casting Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst in the story of a Southern all-girls school that takes in a Union soldier during the Civil War.

The Beguiled is a respectable but pallid redo of a hothouse Civil War melodrama made with much more flair and power by Don Siegel, and starring Clint Eastwood, 46 years ago. Other than to place slightly more emphasis on the female empowerment angle of a group of Southern women turning the tables on an injured but scheming Yankee soldier they’ve taken into their isolated household, it’s hard to detect a strong raison d’etre behind Sofia Coppola’s slow-to-develop melodrama. Focus Features will release this modest effort in late June as counter-programming presumably aimed at a youngish female audience.

Rendered in soft, sometimes indistinct images illuminated only by candlelight or other natural sources, the tale consists of an emotional chess match among women of various ages who are trying to survive the war in a beautiful mansion that serves as a “seminary for young ladies"; the object of their mutual fascination is an Irish (to accommodate the accent Colin Farrell has chosen to use) Union soldier they discover badly wounded and nurse back to health, at their peril.

The pace is very leisurely indeed at the outset, after little Amy (Oona Laurence) finds Corporal John McBurney in the woods while picking mushrooms. The seminary is a very proper place, with the women and girls dressing primly in white, pursuing music and French studies and saying prayers regularly. Men don’t normally get any further than the front gate.

Still, even before the good-looking fellow can get out of bed, he provokes a bit of sweat and heavy breathing in the household, first on the part of the lady in charge, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), when she gives the unconscious fellow a thorough sponge bath. The second oldest among them, Edwina (Kristin Dunst), would seem to be the most earnest and religious of the lot, but when she reveals her true colors she’s the most desperate to leave. But during the Civil War, where can you go?

Late teen Alicia (Elle Fanning) exhibits the least inhibition over flirting and showing an interest in the visitor, even kissing him a couple of times, but her moves would still barely rate a raised eyebrow by modern standards. So it’s pretty slow going at the Farnsworth estate for a good long while as Corp. McBurney gets back on his feet.

But once the man is up and about and Martha declares that he can leave in a few days, the scheming begins in earnest. With due calculation, McBurney tells Edwina he loves her, but this backfires when the latter catches the rascal in Alicia’s room. None of this goes down well with the pent-up Martha, who exacts the next-worst punishment to castration on him in retaliation for his insubordination.

The story, then, is nothing if not melodramatic, but Coppola’s instincts never have inclined in that direction, so much of what goes on remains essentially uninflected dramatically and, as a result, without much impact. The first half, in fact, treads the edge of dullness, although things do pick up in the final stretch as closure, if not necessarily justice, is brought to bear on life at the seminary.

The story, taken from a 1966 novel originally titled The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, is not a bad one as these Gothic affairs go, and Siegel turned it into a vigorously made film that benefited greatly from what, after his icon-producing Man With No Name outings, served for some star-watchers as the first indication that Eastwood really had what it took to stick as a major actor (even so, the film was not well handled by Universal and flopped domestically).

By contrast, Farrell doesn’t do all that much with the part, suffering painfully through the first stretch and not revealing anything behind the eyes to suggest what his scheming character might be cooking up. Eastwood had far more presence and subtlety in the role.

The women fare rather better, with Kidman, Dunst and Fanning doing solid, if not special, work in the main parts.

Shooting with such little illumination was clearly a deliberate move in the direction of evocative naturalism, but the result really does make you want to reach for the light switch and may not look too good under less than optimum projection conditions.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)

Opens: July 27 (Focus Features)

Production: American Zoetrope

Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kristin Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard

Director: Sofia Coppola

Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and the screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp

Producers: Roman Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley

Executive producers: Fred Roos, Anne Ross

Director of photography: Philippe Le Sourd

Production designer: Anne Ross

Costume designer: Stacey Battat

Casting: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels

93 minutes