You might wonder why Sofia Coppola would remake a relatively obscure Clint Eastwood film from 1971 — one that bombed in its initial release, no less. And that’s only if you’ve heard of that version of “The Beguiled,” now more than 45 years old, about a wounded Yankee soldier sheltered by a Southern girls’ school in Virginia during the Civil War. One possible reason is that it deals, in part, with women surviving in isolation as the world rages around them, which likely appealed to the maker of “The Virgin Suicides” and “Marie Antoinette.”
The new film opens, like the original, with Amy (Oona Lawrence), one of the youngest students, picking mushrooms in the woods when she happens upon Yankee Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), hiding semiconscious in a thicket as cannon fire booms in the distance. Amy helps McBurney to his feet and leads him back to the school gates, where Amy’s teachers and companions marvel at the soldier and debate what to do with him.
The law decrees they must turn this dangerous enemy over to the Confederates, but Christian morality insists that they must mend his wounds first, resulting in a grim irony: McBurney surely will die in a Confederate prison regardless.
Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the school’s owner and headmistress, leads these struggles of mind, body and spirit. She agrees to stitch McBurney’s shrapnel-torn leg, and, after some debate, she allows him to convalesce in the school’s music room, where he becomes the center of attention, fascination and not a little sexual attraction to the school’s occupants.
One of Coppola’s achievements is to strand these ethical conflicts through a morass of feeling. The only man on the farm for years, McBurney swiftly loses his status as an enemy. Stripped of a uniform, he’s merely a man. And soon, he becomes a strange, exotic and beautiful object of affection, metaphorically underscored by the film’s emphasis on Amy’s pet turtle.
One by one, certain of the more precocious girls sneak into the music room to spy on or speak with McBurney, and soon their Christian duty evolves from dressing his wounds to letting him stay on at the school — of course only until he’s fully healed. But after that — well, in modern parlance: to be determined. One student, a bold, older girl named Carol (Elle Fanning), surreptitiously and provocatively sneaks a kiss, and McBurney, once he’s up and about, makes love — in the 19th-century, words-only sense — to the school’s principle instructor, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). All this intrigue is filmed with careful attention to detail, in a primarily European aspect ratio that further enhances the feeling that we’ve entered a peculiar realm.
Likely the result will be a minor hit at best for its writer and director, at least in terms of box office success. As a remake of a previous film, however, with layers of reaction, revision and commentary, it’s one of Coppola’s most interesting projects.
Her version is shorter than the original, but not by much when you consider all that she’s omitted, including the school’s slave, played with power and wit by Mae Mercer in the original, and McBurney’s flashbacks to his time in the war, which revealed the Eastwood version’s true nature, are also missing, as are the women’s internal dialogues, given free rein in 1971.
That’s a lot to excise, but it affords Coppola room to maneuver, often merely with a slight shift in tone or perspective, time and attention to character. In her version, we tend to see the world the way the students do, through a spyglass stationed on a balcony, straining to bring the world beyond the gate into focus, and through warped and blurry 19th-century window panes, as Confederate soldiers stop to chat with the headmistress. Dim candlelight at night emphasizes the metaphors of uncertainty and solitude — a literal life in the dark.
Equally important is the relationship between McBurney and the women. Eastwood’s characterization was unquestionably mercenary. In Coppola’s, a little girl offhandedly wonders aloud if McBurney is a mercenary, in the sense that he was paid to fight and not necessarily against the Confederacy. Whether that’s an accidental call back or not, the male motive is much less clear here. It’s not the focus.
The question implicit in the original, from the title to its stomach-churning climax, is, who exactly are the beguiled. Coppola pushes that question into the background, toning down the horror of the original in favor of psychological drama, evoking the ambiguities and customs of a bygone era ripe for the investigation of isolated women. (R) 94 min. S