The Beguiled – a Sure Cure for Insomnia

The head of a boarding school for young Southern ladies (Nicole Kidman) reluctantly takes in a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) in Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric thriller “The Beguiled.” (Ben Rothstein / Focus Features)

The 2017 version of “The Beguiled” directed by Sofia Coppola is a disappointment.  The 1971 film version, starring Clint Eastwood, is so much more impactful and suspenseful than the 2017 version.  There is simply not enough anxiety created in the newer version – which is so much about mood and atmosphere that the underlying terror and anxiety are tossed away.  While Colin Farrell’s Corporal John McBurney is believable as the wounded Union soldier taken in by Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for southern women, the movie spends so much time creating an atmosphere with the same languid Spanish moss hanging from the same southern Live Oak Trees that we either lose interest in the underlying story or fall asleep from boredom.  Atmosphere is all well and good, but not when it totally supplants a story line that is both sinister and engaging if left to its own devices.

Farrell is found by a 12 year-old seminarian who is out in the woods scouting for mushrooms.  It has been at least four years since any of the 6 women in the seminary have seen a man at intimate range so they are completely taken with their wounded guest – he’s a MAN.  The corporal wastes no time in wooing every woman in the place who is old enough to recollect the spark of passion from pre-war days.  But Farrell’s talent for wooing is far less convincing than that of Eastwood’s.  And something is severely awry when Farrell goes on a rampage that far exceeds the subtle terror that Eastwood provoked in his seminary residents.

The story line is similar.  However, the character off Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is far too attractive and vulnerable compared with the unshakable Farnsworth played by Geraldine Page.  Really, not everyone needs to be taken in by Corporal John McBurney.  Geraldine Page managed to keep her distance from the irresistible charms of the corporal, but she was not as pretty as Kidman.  One thing the original film did a better job of was to plant us squarely in the Civil War with opening scenes of battles and monologues from the soldiers.  Also, Confederate scouts made regular rounds outside the gates of Miss Farnsworth’s school which heightened the danger in secreting a Union soldier.  Coppola’s insistence on atmosphere rather than character or story line drives the script into a state of serious somnolescence.  We do not even need the Civil War to tell this story in Coppola’s version.

Coppola depends a bit too much on subtlety.  Farrell slowly seduces his victims one at a time.  In the original version of the film there is no mistaking that McBurney is a liar and a thorough scoundrel.  Eastwood regales his captors with stories of his prowess while scenes of his cowardly brutality are played in the background.  Still the love-starved women vie for Eastwood’s attention, creating an atmosphere of jealousy and competition among the women.  In Coppola’s version we see little of the conflict among the women and we have reason to be surprised when Farrell couples with the wrong woman.

Further, even the children in Coppola’s film are far less convincing as children than in the earlier version.  It seems that it would not have taken much to cast great child actors in the several children called for in the film.  But some of the children are so wooden that we wonder where they were during their own childhood.

To my way of thinking there is nothing redeeming about this film, and I wonder why Coppola had to drift so far off script that she felt she felt compelled to offer us an atmospheric piece rather than a storyline.  This is no longer the story of a Union soldier salvaged and turned angry because of the atrocities performed on him.  It is the story of a bunch of terrified women who by happenstance manage to realize their own destinies.  But, sadly, it is mostly a crashing bore.

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