The Beguiled, the new film from director Sofia Coppola, is based on a novel written by Thomas Cullinan, originally published in 1966. Realistically, though, it probably owes more to the first attempt at taking the story from page to screen: a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, released nine months before their famed collaboration on the hit Dirty Harry. In its timbre and bearing, the 2017 iteration feels more like a remake than an adaptation. That notion is given credence by Coppola’s stated intent to reverse the framing of the earlier movie, downplaying the focus on a fallen soldier (played originally by Eastwood and here by Colin Farrell) and instead giving greater consideration to the perspectives of the women who make up most of the cast of characters.
Usually, my preference is to labor against expending too much intellectual and evaluative energy towards comparing the two films. While I recognize the impossibility built into the policy, my goal is to treat every film as its own entity, at least somewhat free of expectations imposed by earlier efforts. There are instances, however, in which weighing one film against another can clarify shortcomings and strengths. Coppola’s The Beguiling doesn’t work, and Siegel’s The Beguiling provides the answer as to why.
Siegel’s version of the story is twisty and provocative from the very beginning. In his film, the U.S. Civil War is at an indeterminate point, but weariness has obviously replaced passion as the predominant mood. Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood) is a Union soldier gravely wounded in the woods, where he’s found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), who’s out collecting mushrooms to stock the pantry at the sparsely-populated all-girl boarding school she attends. The interaction between the two basically begins when John has Amy hide with him as Confederates trudge by. John claims the twelve-year-old girl is old enough for a kiss and helps himself to one, presumably in part because he knows his discovery by the nearby enemy will end in his execution and this might be his last chance for such an act of affection. It’s a creepy moment, but it serves a narrative purpose, setting up the slippery ethics of the character.
In Coppola’s rendering (she’s also the sole credited writer of the screenplay), the initial encounter is far more benign, with no nearby adversarial soldiers and no stolen smooch. Much as a modern echo of the latter infraction would have been extra skeevy with a few additional decades of accumulated progressive morality (even if that enlightenment hasn’t quite reached everywhere), it’s not the only part of the film that involves Coppola shearing away a nettlesome complication. From start to finish, nearly everything that was complex — and therefore interesting — in the original is absent from the newer film. Siegel’s film — with a screenplay co-credited to Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp — features suggestions of incest, ugly male entitlement when coming upon supposedly helpless women, and a clearer depiction of the opportunistic lying of the wounded soldier to preserve his relatively safety among the women of the school. It is florid where the new film is sedate. The former ultimately works better, especially give the Southern Gothic trappings.
In restraining the storytelling, Coppola winds betraying the very characters she was supposed to empower. The school’s headmistress is awash in inner conflict, as played by Geraldine Page in the original. Nicole Kidman inherits a far flatter role, with the ambiguity and troubled impulses set aside in favor of a fragile, terse nobility. Similarly, the budding teen seductress played by Jo Ann Harris in the 1971 film becomes a scattered, motivationally incoherent figure in the role given to Elle Fanning. In Coppola’s hands, these are women without discernible inner lives, beholden to the creaking floorboards of the plot. Only Kirsten Dunst — playing a role originated by Elizabeth Hartman — offers hints of the loneliness and scuffed self-worth that could make her susceptible to the overtures of this dashing man who’s crossed into her lives. And even she, by the end, is made unduly passive, robbed of a moment of pointed choice as the film moves decisively into its endgame.
Maybe the most egregious cut is the elimination of a slave character named Hallie, played with authority and cunning by Mae Mercer in Siegel’s film. Coppola has been rightly criticized for this already. It’s especially perplexing given everything that drains from the film in the role’s absence. Not only are the women and girls of the school spared the realistic shadows of their own complicity in the sins of the South that stirred the war in the first place, but John loses one of his avenues for manipulation, slyly trying to elicit Hallie’s solidarity because he fights for her freedom.
But then there’s only the most meager of suggestions that John is fighting for his life, using every devilish psychological trick at his disposal in the battle. In the role, Eastwood is always thinking — maybe the only time I’ve ever felt that was the case in an Eastwood performance — surveying possible exit strategies like a nervous flyer at the first shimmy of a jumbo jet’s fuselage. Farrell is simply there. His stiff interactions with the residents of the school could be tactical or they could be gentlemanly politeness. It’s impossible to say, because Coppola shows no apparent interest in probing for the truth of any particular moment. She frames dimly lit rooms and hazy afternoons with a painterly loveliness, but finds no life within the images. Even if Siegel’s film could hardly be deemed perfect, it could never be accused of a similar dearth of spirit.