Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled brings one refreshing element: a female eye

Her delicate touch as a director keeps the mood frisky, even at its most fraught.

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The 1971 thriller Dirty Harry was preceded in the same year by two unsavoury movies that cast its star, Clint Eastwood, as a smouldering sex object preyed on by unstable women. In Play Misty For Me, he is a DJ stalked by a fan; think of it as Vinyl Attraction. Sleazier still is The Beguiled, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, about an injured Union soldier taking shelter at a girls’ seminary in Virginia during the US Civil War. Don Siegel, who also made Dirty Harry, piles on the close-ups of ravenous females, from the pubescent to the menopausal, all going gaga for this hunk of prime beef. It would be offensive were it not so overcooked.

To her new adaptation of the material, Sofia Coppola can’t help but bring one refreshing element: a female eye. The camera in her version of The Beguiled expresses and inhabits the women’s isolation, where the earlier film rendered it pitiful and grotesque, while her delicate touch as a director keeps the mood frisky even at its most fraught. In Siegel’s picture, a fight breaks out over which girl will get to soap the soldier down; one candidate slaps the other with a wet washcloth and calls her a “hussy”. Coppola prefers the veiled threat, the loaded glance. She even goes in for some Carry On-style innuendo with talk about tending the undergrowth that would fall outside the remit of Gardeners’ Question Time.

In this film, looks could kill: invisible daggers fly across the dinner table, where a simple discussion about apple pie escalates into a contest to claim credit for pleasure administered. A camp, cramped humour arises from the women’s efforts to keep their discord within the boundaries of politeness in front of their convalescing house-guest, John McBurney (Colin Farrell). The headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman), introduces French phrases into conversation (“Très jolie!”) like squirts of perfume concealing an unpleasant smell, and labours under the burden of having to keep order when all she wants is to keep John for herself. Another teacher, the prim Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), melts beneath his gaze. “I haven’t seen that lovely pin on you since Christmas,” observes one girl, causing Edwina to blanch at the insinuation that she is dolling herself up, but also to offer a little crinkle of delight. The oldest pupil, Alicia (Elle Fanning), has no truck with subtlety, as if we couldn’t have guessed from her cascading locks. (It’s the kind of film where the hairstyles say as much as the dialogue.)

Emphasis is altered by the casting of Farrell, an actor who is interestingly tarnished (rehab, sex tape) and not at all the infallible type Eastwood was when he played the part at the same age (41). Farrell isn’t scared to emphasise the wheedling aspects of the character. The women project their desires onto John but the camera is sceptical; it keeps him at arm’s length. Eastwood was delighted to be bouncing the women off one another, whereas Farrell hits more complicated notes. John may be flattered by the attention, but he doesn’t overlook the precariousness of his position. He is on enemy territory, politically speaking. With each longing look, he is flirting for his life.

The story’s sense of spatial containment (it never leaves the grounds of the school) fits with some of Coppola’s previous films (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation). She has a long way to go before she makes something as skilful as Black Narcissus in its combination of physical and psychological states, but she pays her own tribute by introducing a plump red rose into the frame following scene after scene of beige decor and diffused light – it’s a tiny echo of the radical moment in Powell and Pressburger’s film when a nun applies a slash of ruby lipstick.

Her one regrettable choice was to exclude Hallie, the African-American slave played forcefully in Siegel’s version by the blues singer Mae Mercer. Coppola’s claim to be sparing younger audience members unnecessary discomfort doesn’t wash, since a version of the US Civil War that overlooks slavery may just as well be set in space. And besides, as the characters in The Beguiled could have told her, an amputation sometimes makes the problem worse. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions