Remakes are an unfortunate part of the present movie scene, but the real problem with most of them is that they’re overly slavish copies of the originals; too many seem to follow Joe Bob Briggs’s rule of thumb about sequels—just make the same movie over again. (To take an extreme example, think of Gus Van Sant’s much-ridiculed “Psycho.”) The best thing about Sofia Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled” is that it feels not so much remade as rethought: while it follows the trajectory of Don Siegel’s 1971 picture, the tone is so unlike the previous movie’s pulpy, sensationalist approach that it seems fresh, like a revisionist performance of a familiar play.
Not that the material, in this case, is classic. The basic plot remains what it was in Siegel’s picture with Clint Eastwood and “The Painted Devil,” the 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan on which it was based. The setting is a girls’ boarding school—Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies—located in a rural plantation mansion in the South near the close of the Civil War. On an outing in the woods to search for wild mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the few remaining students in residence, comes upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell); and rather than turn him over immediately to the Confederate Army, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) brings him into her school to be nursed back to health.
That turns out to be an unwise decision, since McBurney, while an ostensibly courtly sort of Irishman—an immigrant so desperate for cash that he accepted $300 to serve as a stand-in for a wealthy draftee—takes advantage of the neediness of Farnsworth’s shy assistant Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who’s starving for affection, and of sultry student Alicia (Elle Fanning), who’s licking her lips in anticipation of sex; nor is Miss Farnsworth herself totally immune to the soldier’s silken charm. McBurney’s nocturnal activities eventually result in a tragic accident, however, and Martha’s decision about dealing with it leads him to show his true brutish colors—and Miss Farnsworth and her staff and charges to take a drastic course of action against him.
In 1971 Siegel played this lurid tale like the pulp potboiler it is, with Eastwood a predatory animal—a snake in a potential garden of delights, as it were—and Geraldine Page’s Martha Farnsworth a repressed spinster overcome by her lust, as are the soldier’s other female prey. Copolla’s approach is far subtler, dependent more on atmosphere and suggestion rather than overt titillation. The threat of arousal or violence is never absent, but it’s treated with discretion, and while Farrell’s McBurney is hardly a gentleman, he appears, at least at first, merely conniving.
It’s the women, however, who are treated most differently here. Kidman’s Farnsworth is not the desperate spinster Page’s was; she’s certainly not unmoved when touching the wounded soldier as she washes him, but her determination to remain in control is ironclad. Dunst’s Edwina is as fearful of McBurney’s advances as Fanning’s Alicia is openly inviting of them. The other girls—Laurence’s Amy, Angourie Rice’s Jane, Emma Howard’s Emily, and Addison Riecke’s Marie—stake out different positions, some drawn to the soldier and others seeing him as an enemy, but all are obviously entranced by his presence. The movie is permeated with an underlying mood of simmering sensuality, mirrored in the languorous, steamy cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd, which captures the woozy ambience of the haze-filled Louisiana locations and carries that swooning tone into the interior images, where all seems luminous with the aura of candlelight—not just the burnished furniture but the white dresses of the girls, who seem to be decked out for evening dances rather than daytime lessons.
The result is a richly evocative portrait of a claustrophobic environment seething with unexpressed longing, in which animal instinct lies beneath a falsely decorous surface, rupturing the ostensibly idyllic refuge from the outside world when it finally breaks out. Some viewers might find Coppola’s approach overly subdued, even timorous, and prefer Siegel’s more blatant, even vulgar treatment of the material. But even doubters cannot doubt the degree of craftsmanship in every frame.
Kidman anchors the film with a performance of slightly askew formality as Miss Farnsworth, and Farrell conveys both sides of McBurney’s character—his cunning and his volatility—well. Dunst and Fanning bring surprising inner feeling to characters that are, in reality, rather one-note figures, and the remaining girls all manage to provide theirs with little idiosyncratic moments that set them apart from one another. The production design by Anne Ross and costumes by Stacey Battat are integral to the atmosphere that Coppola and Le Sourd create.
This is the rare remake that justifies itself by offering a gratifyingly new take on old material. Coppola’s version of “The Beguiled” is both beautiful and unsettling.