The Beguiled (2017)
Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” has probably been one of the most anticipated movies of this summer, and is based on the novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, initially titled “A Painted Devil”. In “The Beguiled” (2017), Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) runs an all-girl boarding school in Virginia amidst the waging of the American Civil War, and among the remaining six of her pupils are highly-strung Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a boy-crazy girl Alicia (Elle Fanning). All is well, until one of the girls, Amy (Oona Laurence), discovers a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) in the periphery of their school, and decides to bring him to school so that he can receive an immediate medical help. As the soldier recovers, however, he stars to pay special attention to the girls in the school, sparking fits of uncontrollable passion, and, ultimately, suspicion and jealousy. Although the film is beautifully shot, it is also a misguided attempt to produce something evocative and deep. Sofia’s “The Beguiled” has virtually no character development; the plot, which misses the dramatic point of Cullinan’s book completely; and the film’s choice of the cast is almost as bad as its adapted script.
Now, who is better equipped to direct the 2017 version of the 1971 film than Sofia Coppola? Coppola seems one’s perfect choice. She is famous for directing a cinematic masterpiece which is “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), a movie about some boys’ tragic fascination with the beautiful teenage Lisbon sisters in the suburban USA. Coppola also directed stylishly presented “Marie Antoinette” (2006) and, before that, award-winning “Lost in Translation” (2003). In “The Beguiled”, it looks like Coppola also does a good job as she was awarded the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival 2017, not that it makes her picture any better. In fact, the most admirable aspect of “The Beguiled” is its cinematography/photography provided by Philippe Le Sourd. The film sets the right atmosphere from the beginning. We are shown the passage of Amy through the forest near the school as she collects mushrooms and berries. The setting is haunting, dreamy, beautiful, with the use of pale colours and a mist effect, amidst the sound of a gun-fire in the distance. In the book, there is a passage which states “the artillery fire was continuing in the woods and there was a great deal of smoke in that direction”. Couple this with the setting of the movie at the Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana , a grandiose white building, and what is immediately beautifully evoked is this romantic idea of danger present somewhere in the distance, making itself intermittently known to the innocent, defenceless females taking shelter in the school. However, unbeknown to them, the danger is closer than they think.
Sofia Coppola repeatedly stated that her film was not a remake of the 1971 film directed by Donald Siegel, but only an adaptation of the book by Cullinan (IMDb), and, therefore, I will not compare this film with the 1971 film version. However, even concentrating on the novel alone, it is clear that Coppola’s film is a “quiet” disaster. First of all, it may be said that the biggest flaw of “The Beguiled” is that it completely missed the very point of Cullinan’s novel. The book and the film can be divided into two parts: before and after McBurney’s leg amputation, and I will deal with each separately.
The First Part
The film and the novel here largely follows the same path: the finding of the soldier; the efforts to preserve his leg; the girls’ attraction to the soldier; Miss Martha refusing to give out wounded McBurney to other soldiers; and McBurney getting even more intimate with Edwina and Alicia. The culmination here is that Miss Martha gives McBurney an eviction notice, and Edwina then finds him in bed with Alicia, which results in McBurney falling down the stairs. He injures his already damaged leg further, and that results in the necessary amputation. Some individual scenes from the book seem to be in the film, such as McBurney telling Amelia that she is his best friend. However, the film does not show that sexual tension, that hidden mental game which is supposed to take place between the girls and McBurney. The delivery here is almost lukewarm and unexciting. What should have been a slow, psychologically fascinating game of McBurney paving his way to each of the girl’s heart individually is simplified by Coppola to such an extent it becomes a dull watch of few relevant scenes at most. This is supposed to be a tale of “appearances deceiving”, with McBurney using flattery, and appealing to the girls’ special interests to gain their trust and love, without other girls knowing. However, in the film, nothing as interesting ever happens. For example, in the book, Miss Martha thinks that McBurney looks like her lost brother and Edwina thinks he looks like her father; and McBurney appeals to Emily’s sense of patriotism and to Amelia’s love for nature. Therefore, the second part of the film also does not work, because for the drama of the second part to succeed, the drama of McBurney taking special place in the hearts of the girls must also be shown, for the subsequent “revenge” of the girls to be justified.
The Second Part
The second part of the film differs from the book. In the book, after the amputation, the girls only slowly start to lose their trust in McBurney, and the latter also only gradually comes to his sporadic immoral actions. At no time in the novel McBurney threatens the girls with the gun overtly, let alone “kidnaps” Amelia. However, these things happen in the film, whereby McBurney starts to behave completely berserk after his amputation, and Coppola feels justified endowing her female characters with the “justification” to save their lives by serving McBurney poisonous mushrooms. Understandably, Coppola wanted to turn this story into a feminist tale of women’s liberation, but in her pursuit to do so, she completely re-wrote the book, making the story simple, dull and almost too obvious.
This is because the main point of the Cullinan’s novel is the fascinating issue of moral ambiguity, which appears nowhere in Coppola’s adaptation. In the book, the reader is not completely sure that McBurney is really that evil, and the girls are that morally justified in their final action. However, Coppola makes out of McBurney an insane and dangerous maniac. The subtlety and moral dilemmas of the novel are completely disregarded here. It is true that, in the novel, McBurney is deceitful, abusive, threatening Alicia overtly and others implicitly, but the reader is never completely sure of his serious sexual offences. In the novel, McBurney cannot help but be who he is; tries to apologise to the girls; seeks forgiveness; repeatedly says that he “mean[s] no harm”; and the letters found in his pocket after his death characterise him in good light. Moreover, it is unclear in the novel whether the amputation of McBurney’s leg was that necessary, and in fact, in the novel, it is made clear to McBurney that it was not necessary, hence his “justified” rage (for example, Amelia tells McBurney in the novel: “I am sure Miss Martha and everyone else thought they were doing the right thing”, and Harriet also says to him: “I do believe my sister was honestly appalled at the realisation of what she has done to you”). Also, in the novel, the girls are unsure if mushrooms are really poisonous, but “they hoped they were”. All these thought-provoking elements do not appear anywhere in Coppola’s adaptation, and this is unfortunate. It is as though we only see the culmination of the drama and not its development in the movie.
Moreover, in her film, Coppola does not manage to demonstrate the wrongs suffered by each of the girls at McBurney’s hands. The important, thought-provoking element of the novel is that the girls do not only harbour ill-feelings and seek to take revenge on McBurney, but they cannot let McBurney “escape” from their premises alive. Marie says in the novel: “Most of [the girls] are afraid that [McBurney] may do more harm away from here than he’s do when while he’s been staying here – by talking about various things.” It is true that, in the book, McBurney “killed” Amelia’s turtle; broke Edwina’s heart; was “sexually unfaithful” to Edwina and Alicia; and also abusive to Miss Harriet and Miss Martha, but the girls also feel that he cannot “leave” them because he knows many of their secrets – certain facts, which would be damaging to them if they are ever known outside the school. For example, McBurney learns of the situation and plans of the opposing army forces; of Miss Martha’s loss of hair and her abnormal relationship with her brother; and of Edwina’s racial background. The coolness of the girls when they talk about McBurney’s death is shocking, for example, Alicia in the novel says: Of course, if [McBurney] did die, it wouldn’t be any worse than what happened to plenty of other boys in the past three years, including close relatives of many of us”. Although “The Beguiled” (2017)’s final scenes involving McBurney’s poisoning are very impressive, ultimately, the finale of the film is underwhelming and even puzzling.
None of the characters in the film are really developed. Each character in the novel has a distinct and interesting personality, and the characters’ interaction is fascinating to read. This is only hinted at in Coppola’s film. For example, Miss Martha is a much more complex personality in the book, with such secrets as her lack of hair and her dubious and shady relationship with her brother; and Edwina Morrow has her own fascinating story of woe, involving her father who seemingly abandoned her and is engaged in some illegal business activity. At first, this information may appear irrelevant to the story at hand, but it is very telling of the character and her actions, because Edwina sees in McBurney that someone who will finally take her away from the school, and who will not abandon her like her father. Moreover, Alicia’s “amorous actions” are explained in the novel, because her mother was, apparently, a common woman of a great beauty with multiple lovers. The point here is that Coppola’s film runs only 94 minutes, which means that there was still plenty of time for her to even attempt to give some meaning to the girls’ actions or make the girls in the film more interesting.
- John McBurney
Another weakness here is the choice of the main cast. John McBurney is probably the most complex character in the novel, despite appearances suggesting otherwise, but, arguably, Colin Farrell (“The Lobster” (2015), “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (2016)) is a poor choice to play him. The only two things which make Farrell and McBurney alike is the fact that the two are Irish and good-looking, and that is where the similarities between the two end. McBurney is supposed to be a twenty-year old guy with red hair and freckles (as described by Amelia when she first finds him (Emily also once refers to him as “red-headed rogue”)). Farrell, at forty-one, is too old for this role, and no amount of make-up can really camouflage his age. The age of the character is important here because the point of the story is that the girls think McBurney is more or less their age and fall in love with him. Even Farrell’s personality and demeanour in the film are wrong. In the film, Farrell is too passive and serious to be McBuney, who is supposed to be a teasing, playful, pleasure-seeking and freedom-loving boy. McBurney should appear easy-going, optimistic and even naïve, but Farrell is as interesting as some wood gathered by Amelia in the forest. Sometimes it even feels like Farrell reprises his role from “The Lobster”, delivering his lines in the same boring, dead-pan manner and engages in some kind of semi-mechanical acting. Moreover, with all due respect, Farrell does not have that special kind of complexity in his personality to play McBurney. Despite his admirable qualities, McBurney is also selfish, cowardly, and deceitful, and will use his social intelligence to gain trust and confidence of females around him. This special kind of cunningness of McBurney is virtually nowhere to be seen in Farrell’s take on the character.
Just because Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia” (2011)) was previously a part of groups of sisters in both “Little Women” (1994) and “The Virgin Suicides” (1999) does not mean that she would be a good cast here. Though not totally miscast, Dunst is still wrong in this role. In the book, Edwina is an attractive sixteen-year-old girl with shiny black hair and dark complexion. Dunst is not only fair and blonde, but she is too old to play a student at this school. The character of McBurney in the book also keeps referring to her as “Blackie”. Even though this could be forgiven, the point and drama of the story is that Edwina is not like other girls at the school. She is described by others as “completely hateful” (Amelia), friendless and a real outsider. Apart from some scenes in the end, the film does not even attempt to show the character/personality development of Edwina as played by Dunst. The novel is far superior on that point, because it shows Edwina as distinctly spiteful and resentful in the beginning, only for her to undergo her transformation and become more subdued and soft-spoken when she falls in love with McBurney. Other critics also point out that Coppola is engaged in “white-washing” in her film, because Edwina is supposed to be a quadroon or an octoroon by that time standards, and her racial background is a very important element of the story (being one of the secrets which McBurney discovers).
- Omission of Matilda and Miss Harriet
Moreover, the film unwisely chose to completely cut out such pivotal characters in the novel as Matilda and Miss Harriet, “replacing” the latter with another girl. In the novel, Matilda is a black slave at the school, who should be indispensable in the film, because she is the conscience of the story, an almost neutral outsider looking in. She is the only one who sees the situation involving the story of the soldier clearly. For example, Matilda is, at first, against the idea of taking McBurney into the house and senses trouble immediately. Described in the novel as “the most honest and unselfish person in [the] school”, Matilda is the one guiding the reader to the truth of the matter, because the girls’ interpretations and accounts of the events as they unfold are biased and may not be truthful. For example, Matilda is the one saying: “Nobody knows any of us but the good Lord. And He is the only one who can ever judge us proper. I suspect He knows there is plenty of hatred behind the most friendly [sic] faces, and plenty of love too, I suppose, even in them that never smile”, and also: “I didn’t have any notion then how much evil we got in us, all of us. Seems like none of us ever stop to think how evil can collect in us…how one little mean thought can pile on another ‘tin finally we got a mighty load of badness stacked up inside us…and then we rush ahead and do things we coulda sworn to the Lord Almighty in the beginning we never had in us to do”. The character of Miss Harriet is another unfortunate omission in the film, because she provides an interesting contrast with her sister Miss Martha. If Miss Martha is strong, Miss Harriet is weak, and if Miss Martha is all about daily life and practicalities, Miss Harriet lives in a her own dream world.
- Alicia and Miss Martha
The good thing to say here is that Elle Fanning (“The Neon Demon” (2016)) is a relatively good cast as whimsical Alicia Simms, aged fifteen, because she is both alike in the looks to the novel’s Alicia (who is considered “pretty”), and does a decent job portraying Alicia’s teasing, flirtatious and sometimes deceitful nature as she confidently pursues the handsome soldier. Moreover, Nicole Kidman (“The Others” (2001)) as Miss Martha is an even better cast. Kidman plays the head of “The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies”, and shows well her character’s fighting spirit, natural leadership, organisation, sternness, protectiveness, and coolness under pressure. She becomes the most memorable character in the film, because unlike others, Kidman’s character is a more or less developed one. In the novel, Emily admires Miss Martha “for her strength of will”, while Edwina sees Miss Martha’s preoccupation with such practicalities as money as simple greed. She is the character who will stop at nothing to do the right thing, and says at one point in the novel: “What we will do with [the] Yankee ultimately depends entirely on what we need to do”. The fact that, in the film, Miss Martha also becomes romantically involved with McBurney is really illogical and an insult to this character, because she is the first one, alongside Matilda, to see right through McBurney (for example, calling him “the young devil”), even though, like Matilda, she was initially enjoying his company.
The novel is probably so brilliantly intelligent and complex because each girl narrates her own side of the story, making her own assessment of the events and other people. This means that their description may not be the truth or the objective version of the story. The girls in the novel try to present themselves/their actions to the reader in a better light than is actually the case. For example, in the book, Amelia makes a mistake with Edwina’s age, and some things seem so “private” that even a girl’s own narration omits it, for example, when Edwina is asked by McBurney what is the thing she wants most in the world, and she simply writes: “I told him”. It is true that these thoughts and feelings are hard to convey to the screen, but then, possibly, an off-screen narration would have been a better alternative here. There is also some nice humour in the novel which is nowhere to be seen in the film, for example, such comments by Marie as “we had better sleep with our legs tucked under us in future, or else we may wake up some mourning and find we have sacrificed them to Miss Martha’s new enthusiasm”.
It is true that the cinematography of “The Beguiled” is both haunting and beautiful, and Nicole Kidman’s cast and performance are good, but, unfortunately, these aspects are the only good things in this woeful adaptation. The casting of McBurney and Edwina leave much to be desired, and the choice to ignore some characters in the novel is very unfortunate. However, the biggest problem is that this film both failed to show the complexity and the emotive stance of the novel, and completely misunderstood the main drama and wit behind the novel. It is really unpardonable how such a psychologically-interesting, intelligent, deep and emotionally vivid novel as that written by Thomas P. Cullinan is turned into such an overly simplistic, emotionally void, and almost dull and predictable film as that directed by Coppola. All that can be said is that “The Beguiled” is a very poor adaptation of a great novel indeed. 5/10