Under Coppola’s direction all eroticism is submerged in female unity and empowerment.
IMDB.com lists under THE BEGUILED’s writing credit: Sofia Coppola … (written for the screen by) and Thomas Cullinan … (novel).
On the screen it said “Screenplay by Sofia Coppola.” So I was shocked when I came home and watched the 1971 version directed by Don Siegel starring Clint Eastwood. imdb.com‘s writing credits for this film are: Albert Maltz and Irene Camp and Thomas Cullinan (from the novel by) and an uncredited rewrite by Claude Traverse.
The first 20 minutes of Coppola’s THE BEGUILED are word-for-word from Albert Maltz’s (et al) screenplay. Eastwood was in his prime. Six feet four inches, with a full head of sandy hair and sea blue eyes, director Siegel showered his beautiful star with ravishing close-ups.
Coppola’s version emphasizes the women who are isolated during the Civil War in a large mansion that is a well-born girl’s boarding school. When little Amy (Oona Laurence) finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while picking mushrooms, she decides to bring him back to the school since he has been severely wounded. In Siegel’s version, Eastwood’s McBurney kisses little Amy on the mouth as thanks for shielding him from the approaching Confederate soldiers. The Confederate school is run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Since McBurney is a Union soldier, Martha should put a blue scarf on the gate of the school, so Confederate soldiers will know that an enemy is on the grounds.
The school’s black slave, like the child’s kiss, of Siegel’s version is eliminated. So it is up to Martha to give McBurney a business-like sponge bath. Edwina (Kristin Durst), the school’s teacher, is at first not interested in their guest but soon she is confessing to him her longing to leave the confines of the school. Eighteen-year-old Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the most aggressive in her interest in McBurney and they kiss a few times.
So McBurney now has the attention of Amy, Edwina and Alicia.
While McBurney heals, the girls visit him and begin dressing in their finest gowns. Each start to fantasize a romance with McBurney. McBurney is quick to realize that he has excited the interest of the bored, lonely women and starts to play on their emotional needs.
What is McBurney’s devious plan? He pledges his love for Edwina but decides to act on Alicia’s invitation to visit her room at night. Caught ệtre en acte d’amour, McBurney suffers a horrible fate and then is summarily punished for his indiscretion. Once McBurney chose one over the others, jealousy causes them to unite against him.
As directed by Coppola, Farrell has none of the charisma that would cause the women to behave so indiscreetly. Coppola does not give Farrell enough depth to – at least – foreshadow his treachery. It is the women Coppola is interested in. Kidman plays the prim, tiny-waisted chatelaine and never once seems attracted to McBurney. This is an actor’s choice – not to highlight the virility of a star of equal stature. Why take the focus off the star of the film?
The excitement – a man in their mist and a Union soldier – to boot – is never given proper attention by Coppola. Where is the frustration, the long suffering of the War, the fear of the future, that allows each of the women to see McBurney as a daring escape from their situation?
What is missing from THE BEGUILED is the desperate need these women have for affection during a bitter war. The girls are cloistered and their developing sexuality should have been the key emphasis for their interest in McBurney.
The candle-lit, misty photography and proper costumes do little to satisfy what could have been a sensual blossoming of female desire trapped under the strict societal norms of the era.