Virginia 1864, and the American Civil War still rages, though in this isolated part of the countryside a mansion house that contains a school for what girls who remain does not see too much of the conflict, merely the soldiers occasionally passing by their gates, or even more occasionally asking to see the head of the household Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), or the worst of it, when the soldiers sometimes steal from them to feed themselves. But aside from that, it is a quiet life these women and girls are leading, so when little Emily (Emma Howard) was out gathering mushrooms in the forest one day and stumbled across an injured Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), there were repercussions...
The Beguiled, a novel by Thomas Cullinan, had been a film before, not too long after the book had been published as director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood expressed an interest in adapting it, with the result this Southern Gothic was one of the closest things either of them ever made to a horror movie. Therefore eyebrows were raised when Sofia Coppola announced she was to remake it, or rather craft another version based on the source, as those who recalled the first film were wondering what possibly could be added to what had been a largely well-regarded effort, even if there were grumbles Siegel had essentially made lurid schlock that was less classy than it initially appeared.
As it turned out, many felt Coppola had placed her own stamp on the material, enough to win a director's prize at Cannes which Siegel certainly never had a sniff of when his endeavours were released. That first version was one of those pieces where Eastwood would explore his concepts of the hero, often undercutting them in surprising ways: it was one of the reasons his screen persona remained so fresh for so long, those chances he was willing to take. Colin Farrell, on the other hand, carried no such baggage, he had played traditional heroes before but his most acclaimed roles were where he got to play a little quirkier than usual, and whatever McBurney was, quirky was not really that.
What Coppola was taken to task for was omitting the character of the slave, Hallie, played by singer Mae Mercer in the original, apparently, she said, because she didn't feel she could do the subject of slavery justice and her audience of young girls would not be able to handle that sort of thing in her movies. This was an odd justification, and perhaps spoke more to the fact that the coterie of females in the story would be a lot less sympathetic if they had a slave at their beck and call, something that seemed dishonest when the setting was the Civil War, a time when slavery was uppermost in everyone's minds and impossible to separate from the conflict itself. It would have been a lot more satisfying if she had kept the character, and the mixed race of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), for a more provocative work, not to mention instructional.
However, any questions of race were tastefully swept under the carpet as the main theme was McBurney's presumption that now he has been rescued by these women, he can be the man of the house and rule the roost, in spite of his injured leg which Miss Martha attends to. The idea that this was a house full of sex-starved women and girls before he showed up appeared to be mostly in his mind, though he does work a little magic with his Irish charm on them, especially the repressed Edwina, and maybe the spiky Alicia (Elle Fanning) - we can tell she's on the wild side because of the strands of hair that fall over her face. When they act to prevent him going too far, the symbolic emasculation was where the horror of Siegel's somewhat perverse incarnation resided, but in Coppola's this arose after a slack hour of very little happening at all, not building tension but dissipating it, so the big finale was a damp squib, not demonstrating the power of the feminine, more illustrating how their gender was a trap, and you pondered whether this was intentional. Music by Phoenix.
The first American woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar, Sofia Coppola was born into a film making family, being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and she got her start in the business appearing in her father's films such as Rumblefish, Peggy Sue Got Married and, notoriously, The Godfather Part III.