I do declare. The Southern serenity framing the opening moments of The Beguiled portends something more genteel than gothic: pinkish sunbeams streaming through Spanish moss-draped trees, robins chirping in the early morning and a young girl in pigtails humming as she hunts for wild mushrooms. Anyone setting foot in the theater this summer to see The Beguiled should know, however, innocence is lost, there is plenty of bloodshed and the powdery echoes from afar are cannonballs bowling down thousands of young soldiers.
The Beguiled is set in Virginia, three years into the U.S. Civil War, when things are not going well for either side. The film is a remake of the popular 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. This time around, Sofia Coppola was behind the lens (she also wrote the screenplay), and her efforts already earned her the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival last month. Fans of Coppola will recognize her style of focusing on individual characters, almost in naive fashion, rather than the terrible circumstances around them. Plus, this is her most visually stunning work to date, thanks to the assistance of cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd. The Beguiled is as gorgeous as it is haunting.
Back to the opening scene. The girl in the pigtails is Amy, played by 14-year-old Oona Laurence (a major star in the making). Amy encounters a severely wounded soldier hiding in the woods near Mrs. Farnsworth's Seminary for Young Ladies, the girls' school Amy attends. The two stripes on the man's tattered blue uniform indicate he's a corporal in the Union Army. Underneath a face full of whiskers is Colin Farrell—sans fake American accent, fortunately. Instead, in his native brogue, Farrell portrays John McBurney, an Irish immigrant who joined a Union battalion to eke out a living in America.
Amy tells McBurney to lean on her and they might be able to make it back to the school for girls to have his shrapnel wounds tended to.
"It has to be better than here," says McBurney, to which Amy answers, "True enough."
More untrue words have never been spoken. Anyone familiar with the story knows full well things go wrong, but to Coppola's credit, she lets the pot simmer for a while. Halfway through the film, which has a tight 94-minute runtime, I was honestly wondering if Coppola would go down the dark path the source material insists on, while the movie lingered on lazy days, good-natured nobility and more than a few sensual glances between McBurney, Mrs. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and the schoolgirls, two of whom are played by Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. In the third act of the movie, though, things take a wicked turn.
The 1971 film, directed by Don Siegel featured one of Eastwood's finest performances and was a critical and box office success. I was conflicted about whether this material was ripe for a sequel, and more than a bit skeptical Coppola could pull this off. To her credit, she opted not to turn The Beguiled into a star vehicle for either Farrell or Kidman and without a doubt, the real star in her remake is the production design. It's breathtaking, never stereotypical and, ultimately, Coppola brings something new to the film, advancing the art form. I doubted I would ever feel this way about a movie directed by Coppola, but I loved The Beguiled.