The Beguiled is a film of sex and betrayal set in an exclusive girls’ school in the Civil War South. However, the film has been “whitewashed” to remove slavery from the plot. It is a huge disappointment that Sophia Coppola completely left out the character of a female slave that was in the classic 1971 film. By doing this, the modern version sidesteps the issue of slavery.
In the 1971 The Beguiled, Mae Mercer played the slave Hallie. Some African-Americans thought that Hallie was a token black character with a weak story line. Instead of dropping that character completely Sophia Coppola should have expanded it. The dynamic, complex and intertwined relationships between educated White women and the female slaves they lived with is one of the most fascinating parts of American history. In a story about strong young women of the South under severe pressure, why leave out one of the strongest and most interesting simply because she is Black?
Sophia Coppola has said that she did “not want t brush over such an important topic in a light way,” She expanded that to say, “Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.” Of course, there is no reason why Sophia Coppola would have to handle slavery in a “light way.” She is the director and could handle it openly and honestly as the subject deserves.
We at East Coast Stories believe it was a huge mistake to leave slaves out of The Beguiled. The “young girls” that Sophia Coppola considers her audience are a lot smarter about race issues in The United States than she gives them credit for. How can we possibly deal with the racial issues of today, if we ignore that slaves were an integral part of America from the beginning?
The basic plot of The Beguiled is that the schoolgirls find and take in John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier. It is their duty as Southerners to turn him over to the local Confederate patrols. However, McBurney is able to use his good looks and smooth talk to win over the young women one by one.
Beguiled can mean hypnotized, seduced or bewitched. All three meanings apply in this film. The Beguiled is a remake of the classic 1971 film of the same name in which Clint Eastwood played the wounded Union Soldier.
Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) is the headmistress of the dying school. The slaves have all run away and most students and teachers have gone home to escape the war. Miss Farnsworth continues to hold classes and music lessons, despite the fact that smoke from battles can be seen in the distance. Prayer is often accompanied by the sound of cannons.
The one teacher left is Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). It is clear that her background is somehow different than that of the other women. She is used to fancier settings and more revealing clothing. We are never sure if this is because she comes from wealth, or if her background is something more scandalous.
Elle Fanning is Amy, a beautiful young woman with a rebellious streak, who is continually testing how much she can get away with.
This structured, stark world is thrown into chaos by the arrival of McBurney. For McBurney it is if he has arrived in heaven. He has escaped the war and is surrounded by women; each more beautiful than the next. If he had carefully chosen one woman to quietly and cautiously pursue, then heaven it might have remained. However, like a kid in a candy store, McBurney wants it all and ends up finding himself in Hell.
McBurney works his charm on Miss Danbey, Miss Farnsworth and Amy, instinctively knowing the separate needs of each. Amy wants excitement, Martha Farnsworth needs appreciation and educated courting and Edwina Dabney wants a knight in shining armor to save her. Despite his good looks and charming smile, McBurney is really a callous hunter of vulnerable women. A classic sexual predator.
The phrase “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, is a fitting expression for what happens when the women discover the truth about McBurney and each other. We will not give away the plot other than to say it is exciting, unexpected and chilling.
The casting of the (all white) characters for in The Beguiled is perfect. Every actor gives a powerful performance. Nicole Kidman is spellbinding. Miss Farnsworth is trying to maintain an icy exterior, yet it is clear that deep passions burn withing her soul. She is tormented between the choices of what is best for her and what is best for the school and the girls she has a duty to protect.
Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney has the looks the charm and the arrogance to seduce three women simultaneously while only really loving himself.
Kirsten Dunst is wonderful as the beautiful and mysterious Edwina Dabney. Director Sophia Coppola made the right choice in never fully revealing Edwina’s background. The mystery only adds to the tension. The 1971 version of The Beguiled explained Edwina’s background, but it is more effective as a secret.
When Elle Fanning plays Alicia, audiences can see that she has graduated from little girl roles forever. She was superb as the dangerous young seductress, who may or may not truly understand her influence on a man or the damage she can do with the games she is playing.
Young Oona Lawrence is Amy, the innocent child who first discovers wounded Corporal McBurney in the woods. Unlike the adults in the film, Amy wants nothing for herself. Amy’s only motivation is to do what is kind and right.
In total, the The Beguiled was a very good film. If Sophia Coppola had taken the time to bring in complex African-American characters, it could have been a great film. It would have been harder to write and added a level of complexity to the plot, but it would have been worth the effort.