Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie, which in turn was based on the 1966 Southern Gothic novel by Thomas P. Cullinan titled ‘A Painted Devil’. It isn’t clear to me why such a talented director as Sofia Coppola chose a remake rather than an original work, and I haven’t seen the original for comparison, but taken at face value this is certainly an engaging and well made movie with an interesting if rather slow plot. The Sofia Coppola version stars Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell.
The story takes place in the later stages of the American Civil War. A Unionist soldier has been wounded and will surely die, but is found in the woods, in the deep South, by a young girl gathering mushrooms. She brings him to her all-female school where the principal agrees to take him in until he has recovered his health.
The basic elements of the plot explore the reactions of a group of young women in an all female environment when a handsome male is unexpectedly introduced, how this plays out over time in the relationships between the women and the man and between the women themselves. It also explores the reaction of the male to the situation.
Initially most of the girls in the school and both of the adults vie for the soldier’s attention, sometimes to hilarious effect. Special jewellery reappears, best dresses are worn and increasingly extravagant hair dos grace the heads of the ladies. Even those too young to actually have hormones appear to have hormones. There’s flirting – subtle and not-so-subtle – jealousy, and private drinks. There’s also an hilarious scene where the girls and women try to out-do each other in describing their role in producing an apple pie the soldier is served for dinner. Gold.
The soldier is flattered by all of the attention, but aside from any desire for sex with the women he is motivated by a desire to stay alive. Being an enemy combatant he is initially threatened with being handed over to the Confederate troops as soon as he is recovered and calculates that he must find allies within the school to help him to avoid that fate. He tells various of the women and girls that they are his favourite, that they are special and even that he loves them. It all appears to be working until he makes the seemingly inexplicable mistake of visiting the bedroom of one of the girls, which given that the school is housed in a creaky old building and he visits her room in the dead of night could only be a recipe for disaster. Which it certainly is. Jealousy and vengeance kick in, to disasterous effect.
A side theme is the question of how we should treat enemy combatants during a conflict. The soldier was fresh off the boat from Dublin when he accepted money to take someone’s place in the Union army. He was thus really only a mercenary, and had no necessary belief in the cause he was fighting for. Did or should this make a difference to how he was treated? Should he have been left to die, should he have been handed over the Confederates? At first there was a good deal of hostility and suspicion around him, but as the women warmed to him they started to make excuses to themselves so that they could delay when they handed him over..
Our verdict: 9/10 – a beautifully made movie with an interesting if rather slow storyline.