Sydney Film Festival Review: The Beguiled (USA, 2017) is a worthy remake with an excellent cast and crew

Apart from Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, I haven’t seen much of director Sofia Coppola‘s work. Known for her filmmaking approach to humanize her subjects with unorthodox methods like gentle pathos, looking through different character points-of-views outside the norm and the use of anachronisms, Coppola has achieved a reputation of being a director that is both rebellious and restrained.

And now, we have her attempting her first remake, based on the 1971 film of the same name, which starred Clint Eastwood. With her distinct direction, her talented cast of veterans and rising talent and top-notch crew, composed of collaborators and first-timers, will the film leave the audience beguiled or bewildered?

Set during the American Civil War in 1863, the film open with Amy (Oona Lawrence), a young student out on a stroll, picking mushrooms. She then stumbles upon an injured Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and offers him help at an all-female Southern boarding school, led by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).

Reluctant to help, yet bound by morals of human decency (and amusingly, it’s the Christian thing to do), they all decide to help McBurney by locking him into the music room while they tend to him. Soon, mild attractions grow from from teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) to older student Alicia (Elle Fanning) and it then simmers to something more prurient, leading to disastrous consequences.

As for any remake, it is difficult to review one without comparing it to the original. In the case of the latter, the story is told through McBurney’s point of view, which implies the use of the male gaze towards the women. But in the case of the former, the story is told through the point of view of the women. This assures that the remake has a fresh angle on the story and Coppola makes the most out of it.

In one of many surprising moves, the film actually has an alarming sense of humour. Character interactions revolving around the object of affection (in this case, McBurney) are witty, amusing and sometimes hilarious, leading this to be one of Coppola’s most verbose films. Coppola also makes fun of cinematic tropes of the female gaze i.e. McBurney in the role as a handsome gardener and all of the innuendos that come with that trope like pruning and tending.

In the original, the tone was much more lurid and melodramatic, to the point of being Gothic. But in the remake, Coppola aims for more of a low-key vibe, which gives the film a claustrophobic feel as much as it shrouds character motivations, giving the film some tension. Major props goes to cinematographer Philippe le Sourd (who shot Wong Kar-wai‘s The Grandmaster), as he captures the claustrophobia with a hazy, shrouded look that gives it a beautiful, yet haunting atmosphere.

When McBurney arrives at the school, the women are basically reminded of what is or could be outside of their world; the possible beauty or horror of it all. And as the slow-burn pacing gradually becomes more tumultuous, the characters reveal how they truly feel and the tension pays off. And thankfully, the film is at a brisk running time of 93 minutes, which gives the story some much-needed brevity.

The actors certainly hold up on their end, giving calculated performances that lend credibility to Coppola’s vision. Colin Farrell is great as McBurney, the masculine foil, and he conveys the dimensions of his character convincingly, but even better, he switches between them with such ease, it is quite hard to know whether he is sincere or he is devious.

Nicole Kidman gives a typically masterful performance as Farnsworth, who keeps her emotions in check for the safety of her school. What is quite amusing and interesting is that she seems to enjoy her grasp of power over her students, and yet, when McBurney enters the picture, there seems to be a bit of a battle for power between each other. So the audience is left with the conundrum of whether Farnsworth actually has feelings for McBurney or she considers him as an power struggle; something that disrupts her sense of pride. It is twists like this that makes the remake satisfyingly timely and makes it stand on its own.

The supporting cast are all up to the task as well, with Kirsten Dunst as the sorrowful and world-weary teacher, Edwina; Elle Fanning as the rebellious and angsty Alicia, Oona Lawrence as the stalwart Amy; Australian actress Angourie Rice (Jasper Jones, The Nice Guys) as the cynical and headstrong Jane (clearly emblematic of Farnsworth) and the pairing of Addison Reicke and Emma Booth as the innocent and impressionable Marie and Emily.

As for the film’s flaws, the source material is pure pulp, and for Coppola’s understated approach to the material, it does, for the lack of a better word, emasculate it. And considering the setting of the story, it feels a bit strange to see the film set in the Civil War being a bit, well civil.

But, all of this basically comes down to audience expectations more than anything else, as it is the same story from a female’s perspective and as for the claustrophobic feel Coppola is going for, any clutter from the outside (apart from McBurney) would probably distract more than compliment the story.

Overall, The Beguiled is a worthy remake that shows Coppola’s gradual ascension as a filmmaker and with a fantastic cast and crew in tow, the film, like the female characters, is not to be messed around with.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Beguiled screened at Sydney Film Festival, where it was reviewed. The film will be released in Australian cinemas on 13th July 2017.