Sunday, September 10, 2017

Review of THE BEGUILED (2017 vs. 1971): Suppressed Sexuality

September 10, 2017

"The Beguiled" gained prominent critical buzz earlier this year when its director Sofia Coppola won Best Director in the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. She was only the second female director ever to win Best Director at Cannes since Russian Yuliya Solntseva won in 1961 for "Chronicle of Flaming Years". This week, this film is being showed commercially in only Trinoma and Greenbelt 1 malls as a very limited Ayala Exclusive.

The setting is during the Civil War in Virginia, in a girls school run by Ms. Martha Farnsworth. At that time, there were only seven ladies in the school, namely Ms. Martha, a teacher Ms. Edwina Morrow, and five students Alicia, Jane, Amy, Emily and Marie.  One day, while out picking mushrooms for dinner, little Amy came across a Yankee soldier Cpl. John McBurney who had a severely injured leg. 

Ms. Martha decides to take him into her house and nurse his leg wound before turning him over to Confederate authorities. However, all the ladies begin to show fondness for the handsome and charming soldier to the point that they were actually competing for his attention. Things take a more serious turn one night when John decides to visit one of them in her bedroom, and set off a complicated chain of unfortunate events in the school.

The setting of the stately Southern mansion with its expansive gardens provided the steamy atmosphere required for this 19th century female sexual politics. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd seemed to have filmed this with a smoky filter to enhance that sultry air. The slow genteel manners and beautiful gowns of the period heighten the tension and actually provide some delightful humor along the way, especially in the second act. 

Nicole Kidman played the practical headmistress Ms. Martha. Kirsten Dunst played the naive virgin Ms. Edwina. Elle Fanning played the sensual teenager Alicia. Colin Farrell played the man of their fantasies John McBurney. All of them portray their roles very restrained but effectively, engaging the audience into their complicated story of frustration and jealousy during a conservative time when a lady was expected to be prim and proper when it comes to matters of sex. 7/10. 


2017 Sofia Coppola film was all good. However, there is the matter that it is actually a remake of a 1971 Don Seigel film of the same title. No less than man's man Clint Eastwood played John McBurney. Geraldine Page played the pragmatic Ms. Martha. Elizabeth Hartman was the virtuous Ms. Edwina. Jo Ann Harris was the lusty teenager named Carol (renamed Alicia in the new film). 

The Coppola remake made some significant changes from the original film. As much as each one is an individual work of cinematic art, one can also not help but compare the two interpretations of the same story. 

First of all, the original film had one black slave Hallie (Mae Mercer) in the mansion with the white ladies. I think the dynamics around the household was more realistic that way. Her opinion of McBurney as a black woman was interesting.There was significant talk between John and Hallie about being prisoners in the house. 

Nicole Kidman's Ms. Martha was more glamorous looking than Ms. Page's. However, Ms. Page was given much more to do than Ms. Kidman. Compared to Ms. Page's Martha, Ms. Kidman's Martha had limited interaction with John McBurney, which was unfortunate as the sexual tension between these two characters was an important aspect of the story. I wonder why Ms. Coppola abbreviated and weakened Ms. Kidman's Martha significantly when compared to the original.

The previous Ms. Martha had an uncomfortable back story of incest. There was a scene when Ms. Martha actually lied to protect John from patrolling soldiers who saw him. Both of these were absent in the new film. A very tense scene of Ms. Martha talking to lecherous Southern soldiers was muted in the new one. Ms. Martha's horrific surgery scene in the dining table was surprisingly more graphic in the old film than the new. The idea of how to deal with McBurney came from one of the girls in the new film, not Ms. Martha.

Similarly, Colin Farrell could not hold a candle to Clint Eastwood's portrayal of John McBurney in terms of raw machismo. Coppola's decision to keep Farrell covered up with dressing gowns did not help his cause. Eastwood's John was more the manipulator, while Farrell's John felt more manipulated. 

The 1971 film was more frankly sexual than the 2017 one. There was even a psychedelic menage-a-trois sex scene between Eastwood, Page and Hartman (complete with a glimpse of two females kissing) which ended in a tableau similar to that of a religious painting on Ms. Martha's wall. This was totally absent in the new film. 

The main story of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel of the same title about one Union soldier trapped in a Southern mansion full of ladies (could it be Stephen King's inspiration for "Misery"?) was basically the same in both films. However, I found the screenplay of the original film, credited to John B. Sherry (Albert Maltz) and Grimes Grice (Irene Kamp), to be clearer and more detailed in its storytelling compared to Sofia Coppola's more ambiguous adaptation. 8/10.


  1. Interesting comparison. I do like period films that are taken now, but I've hardly watched any decades old movies!!! I like the new 2017 version, esp I like Nicole Kidman, and I'd like to watch it!

  2. Interesting review... I love period movies and especially love this actress... I'll have to watch! Shell

  3. Great review! I'm not fond of watching movie. But this one catch my attention. It seems so interesting. I am looking forward to watch this movie