© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Audrey Kupferberg: The Beguiled

Ever wish that you could remake one of those offensive anti-women macho dramas of the early screen career of Clint Eastwood?  Instead of yelling down the sexist male aggression in scene after scene, you could start from zero, rewrite the screenplay, and present the story from a more gender-balanced or even from a female point of view. PLAY MISTY FOR ME is a classic example -- and so is THE BEGUILED.

Perhaps Sofia Coppola felt that way when she undertook a new adaptation of THE BEGUILED, Thomas Cullinan’s 1960s novel.  Cullinan’s story tells of an injured Yankee soldier who is taken into a remote Southern girl’s school during the Civil War.  In the new release of THE BEGUILED, Colin Farrell plays Corporal McBurney, the character originally played by Eastwood.  Whereas Eastwood has the strongest role in the earlier film, it is the women characters who are most remarkable and who control the storyline in Coppola’s version. 

Coppola wrote an innovative screenplay and then directed the film with a masterly touch.  She brings an authenticity to the era, less than forty years before Edison, Westinghouse and other transformed natural lighting into the age of electricity.  Every aspect of her scenario and direction rings true.  The sets, the costumes and, more than anything else, the manner in which the assemblage of fine actors presents the story. 

The new version of THE BEGUILED takes a much more balanced view of the sexual appetites of both genders.  The first hour or more of the film offers up a mild-mannered corporal who is keeping to his sick bed.  Meanwhile, it is the women who start to form allegiances to McBurney.  Each has a growing interest in him.  Nicole Kidman, who plays the headmistress of the school, is the boss lady, and as such she takes an overview of the situation, rather than getting personal.  However, the other women and young girls form definite relationships.  Other than Kidman’s character who dominates the entire film, the two most noteworthy female characters are Edwina, a teacher who apparently has lost her sweetheart to battle.  She is played by Kirsten Dunst with great sensitivity and subtlety.  The other is Alicia, a teen-aged student who appears to be in the first flowering of her sexual awakening.  This character is played most credibly by Elle Fanning.

Particularly notable is the composition of shots in this film.  Playing up the ensemble nature of the cast, Coppola arranges her images caringly, similar to a pioneering photographer of the 19th century.  As mentioned, she cleverly uses pre-electric candlelight to set the tone and for authenticity’s sake. 

Any way you look at the basic story of THE BEGUILED, it is an exercise in sexual foreplay followed by scenes of quick-paced, exciting action.  In Coppola’s adaptation, the foreplay goes on and on.  For more than an hour of this 93-minute film, almost nothing exciting happens.  I understand why this difficult structure is meaningful to the plot, but regret sitting through such a humdrum lack of action for so long.  Perhaps some of my disappointment is due to Colin Farrell’s inability to make his character consistently engaging while not appearing to be a male stereotype of manipulation and aggressiveness.

Even with that weakness, THE BEGUILED, in the hands of Sofia Coppola, is a successful attempt at turning a basically sexist 1970s Clint Eastwood vehicle into a tale with a modern feminist mindset. 

Back in 2004 she was the first American female to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award for LOST IN TRANSLATION, which still is the finest motion picture in her filmography.  While not every one of Coppola’s directorial efforts is Oscar worthy, she certainly has made a few outstanding feature films, including THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and MARIE ANTOINETTE.   She is a writer, producer, director, and actress—the daughter of filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola and Eleanor Coppola.  As significant as that advantage may be, only a jealous person would decry the success of Sofia Coppola as nepotism, because it is clear that she is a bold, talented, and singular filmmaker. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content