Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Written by: Sofia Coppola
(based on the novel A PAINTED DEVIL by Thomas P. Cullinan)
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard & Addison Riecke
I’ve heard about 1971’s THE BEGUILED and apparently it’s known as an unconventional entry in Clint Eastwood’s filmography, though I have yet to watch it. I mention that tidbit to let you know that I walked into Sofia Coppola’s hotly anticipated BEGUILED remake with little-to-no preconceived notions about what I was about to watch. The trailer intrigued me as this basically looked like a psychological thriller that contained a tense war of the sexes at an all-girls school during the Civil War. While the first film told the story from Eastwood’s character’s point-of-view, Sofia Coppola aimed to tell this story from the girls’ points-of-view. Though it does have a couple of effective scenes, THE BEGUILED is mostly an underwhelmingly bland viewing experience.
In the midst of the Civil War, a small group of young girls and two adults take refuge in a Virginia all-girls school. The women make do with what they have and life seems almost tedious, until one of the students stumbles across wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Taking pity on the poor soul, headmistress Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to his wounds, locks him in a bedroom, and kindly neglects to inform passing Confederate soldiers about the enemy in their midst. As the days go on, John’s wounds begin to heal and he desperately attempts to manipulate all of the women around him in order to stay alive. It turns out that John might have been better off in the war-torn landscape, because hell has no fury like a woman (or group of women) scorned…
THE BEGUILED has an intriguing set-up. From what I hear, the 1971 version is rather intense and strange. However, Sofia Coppola’s take on the material seems to be more in the form of a dark drama. When I say dark drama, I don’t strictly mean the story’s content. Though the trailer contained lots of well-shot and well-lit scenes, it’s hard to make out what’s happening in certain sequences. Those previously mentioned trailer visuals might have had added touch-ups, because I struggled to figure out what the hell was happening during many important (but poorly lit) moments. This might just be a sad side effect of the disc release, but I highly doubt that.
To further harp on this more-than-noticeable problem, a dinner scene appears to be authentically shot with candles as a sole light-source. It’s ambitiously realistic to the point where the viewer can’t see much of anything on the set. There are enough poorly lit scenes to become a big annoyance, especially as really crucial scenes happen during late hours of the night (with no light source). The Southern Gothic atmosphere doesn’t feel convincing either as the costumes feel stagey (even though they were crafted from period authentic material) and the locations seem manufactured (even though they shot this film in Louisiana and at a real New Orleans house).
At the very least, you’d hope that BEGUILED would successfully use big talent who are sure to deliver strong performances, right? Well, you’d also be sadly mistaken on that front as well. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman do the bare minimum of what’s expected of them in this story. Farrell’s character does seem like quite the scumbag, even though he’s fighting on the right side of the war. However, his ultimate desperation doesn’t feel nearly as desperate as it should feel (especially as he’s begging to remain as a gardener and avoid the rest of the war altogether). The same can be said about Nicole Kidman’s headmistress, who seems oddly wooden in her delivery. I should potentially be scared of her character, but she only seems tepidly threatening by occasionally flashing a stern look. That’s about all the darkness that she emotes in her performance.
What the BEGUILED gets totally right is a sense of believable connection between the students at the girls school. Apparently, Sofia Coppola worked on building a community of friendships between the young actresses and that comes across in their performances. Elle Fanning gets to play a real brat this time around too, while Kirsten Dunst is the most sympathetic character in the entire film. The rest of the young actresses also appropriately come off as either bitchy or charming, depending on the moment.
The BEGUILED’s biggest problem is that it’s too simple and, at points, noticeably dull. You can guess how this movie is going to play out well before the end credits roll. To make matters worse, the ride of getting to the all-too-predictable finale isn’t exactly a fun one either as it feels like Sofia Coppola is hitting things in a fairly safe by-the-numbers fashion. This material should feel far more interesting than it does here. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 1971 original is vastly superior to this 2017 remake, because a lot of this film’s problems mostly come down to its bland execution and poorly lit production values. Even though I had hopes for THE BEGUILED, I’d recommend passing up on this disappointment. If you don’t wind up seeing THE BEGUILED, you’re not missing much.