27 July 2017
A film by Sophia Coppola
reviewed by J R Thomas
A film by Sophia Coppola is always something to look forward to; the tingling anticipation of a thing of beauty to be sure, a gentle intelligent fusion of music and photography and well-directed acting; and a thoughtful, subtle pointing to some human condition, usually of the female persuasion, that gives much rumination for the post-cinematic stroll home.
Her latest piece of moving art is “The Beguiled”, Ms Coppola’s adaption of the book by Thomas P Cullinan. It is almost everything that one would expect. The acting is professional to pip-squeaking level, the music is supportive and subtle and suitable, and the photography very well done indeed, with the American Deep South of 1864 providing a series of shimmering ghostly backdrops in the plantations, plus Miss Martha Farnsworth’s School for Young Ladies providing the sort of interiors that Pre-Raphaelite art was invented to record.
1864 was a busy time in the Deep South; the Civil War was about to be over, defeat looming over the Confederacy, and the cannons are booming away constantly in the background. Oddly, nobody amongst the Young Ladies seems in the least phased by this looming or booming; one might expect that just occasionally one of Miss Farnsworth’s pupils might say “Cor, that was a bit close” or worry about the future for her menfolk, but no. But, as it is said that the First World War battlefield guns in France could be heard in London on quiet days, maybe the cordite action is so far off that nobody is unnerved by the booming, and they assume that all will be well in the end.
But what does disturb the young ladies – seven of them pupils of various ages and two teachers, including Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), her nervously charged deputy – is the presence of Corporal John McBurney, a severely wounded Unionist soldier, found by the youngest pupil whilst gathering mushrooms. (Would you let a ten or so year old out gathering mushrooms in the middle of a war? Maybe the guns were indeed a very long way off.) Head teacher, proprietor, and presumably daughter of the departed plantation owner, Miss Martha is nursing him back to health so she can turn him over to the Confederate Army, who presumably will not continue the medical support programme. Martha and her girls come to the slow realisation that army nursing standards may be poor, so he is allowed to stay on, to be useful around the school. But the two teachers and one of the pupils seem to have ulterior motives as to what he might be useful for, viewing his potential talents widely, not surprisingly as plays the wounded John McBurney with a charming Irish brogue (one can’t help wondering if Ms Coppola has been watching Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon too often). He too has ulterior motives, as men are often said to have, not dissimilar to that of those ladies, but his main motivation is not to be handed over to the Confederate Army. And that is quite enough plot.
It has to be said that, in spite of the superior technical standards of this film, it seems a strange tale. This may be because your reviewer is of the male persuasion. He, as it happens, took with him a person of the opposite sex (her motives were not in the least ulterior, we should put on record) and she found it a carefully crafted insight into the motivations and responses of women, faced with challenging and difficult circumstances.
Your reviewer might also be influenced by having read the book (often a mistake, but it was a long time ago), a complex piece of writing which contains a range of perspectives, some misleading, as to what is going on. It also contains, as Confederate households tended to do, a black slave, a housekeeper, who is not beguiled in the way everybody else seems to be. Ms Coppola’s omission of the racial nature of life in the Farnsworth School is one of the stranger recastings of the tale, though one Ms Coppola has strongly defended. Cullinan wrote a physiological thriller of an intensely gripping nature; much of that has drifted away in the new film, replaced by a more dreamlike exposition of trouble and stress building in the closeted mansion.
There is in fact a previous movie which starred Clint Eastwood as the soldier and Geraldine Page as Miss Farnsworth. This was Clint’s first real departure from his lone lawman genre and was too much for his fanbase (or perhaps not enough); the film flopped, though it is now highly regarded as one of Siegel and Eastwood’s best. Siegel followed the book closely, displaying its complex messages fairly faithfully. In both originals the soldier does not have Irish heritage, a strange modification by Ms Coppola, the racial cross currents are core, the mushroom gatherer is thirteen (so fine to be out in the woods alone), and the “school” was then a seminary, which students of Civil War films know that they always were.
So the message here is probably; go and see the Coppola version if you want film-making of the highest standard; but if you want a well-told tale maybe the Siegel/Eastwood version will suit you better. Though maybe it is simple as this: ladies should go to the Coppola offering; gentlemen stick with the Siegel one.
“Beguiled” by Sophia Coppola is on general release and playing at various cinemas now. “Beguiled” by Don Siegel is available on various film on-line distribution sites, or on DVD.
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