‘The Beguiled’: A fox in the henhouse (Beware the hens)

Posters for two different versions of “The Beguiled” – the 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood and Sofia Coppola’s new version, seen from the female perspective.

Much has been made about how Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a feminist reimagining of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie that was itself an adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s Southern Gothic novel, “A Painted Devil.” But the well-crafted remake turns out to be less about feminism and the female perspective than about the sacrifice of the individual – male or female – to the survival of the group.

I don’t remember the Eastwood film but suffice it to say that it was from his and Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” period, so we see the story – about an injured Union soldier taken in at a Southern girls’ boarding school during the waning days of the Civil War – on his terms. That movie also featured a female slave, a character whom Coppola has controversially eliminated from the story. She has said that she didn’t think she could do justice in the context of the narrative to such a weighty subject as slavery. I say eschewing the female slave creates a false historical impression while robbing the story of another viewpoint.

That story then focuses on Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and the Virginia school she and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) run for a small group of girls in 1864. When one of the girls, Amy (Oona Lawrence), finds a wounded Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), while she’s out gathering mushrooms, Martha agrees to take him in and nurse him back to health, hiding him from the Confederate patrols.

Confined to the antebellum mansion’s music room, the Irish charmer John begins to play the women and girls like an ensemble of fiddles and flutes – praising their strengths and accomplishments, appealing to their vanity, undermining their vulnerabilities and, most important, feeding their desires. It’s not long before there’s much corseting of heaving bosoms, wearing of pearls, making of apple pies and playing of music as the ladies vie for his attention, particularly Edwina, a sophisticate who longs for a larger life, and sullen, sensual student Alicia (Elle Fanning). John meanwhile takes to weeding their overgrown garden, in which he is both Adam and serpent.

When sex rears its head – as it inevitably must – the women begin to see a side of John they hadn’t before, just as he, and we, begin to realize that he has underestimated them.

A great visual stylist, Coppola does a wonderful job with the look of the period and the female gaze. In her retelling, the women are the moon to John’s Endymion, objectifying him in the way men have objectified women – but only to a certain extent. Her real feminist triumph here is to make the women as complex as the opportunistic John. They are traditional women – performing for a man, yearning for him to fulfill them individually. But when they are threatened as a group, they prove that female of the species can be as coolly deadly as the male.