Sunday 30 July 2017

The Beguiled (the 2017 film) by Thomas Cullinan

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 Don Siegel classic starring Clint Eastwood. 

Directed and written for the screen by Sofia Coppola, the new version is based on the original movie, of course. But more importantly its source is the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan

Without wishing to labour the obvious, without Cullinan's odd and disturbing novel neither of the films would exist.

However, if you were to look at Sofia Coppola's movie, you wouldn't know the novel exists. 

In an extraordinary departure from the norm (and in a move I am surprised is even legal) there is no mention of Cullinan and his book on the poster. And despite me indulging in a considerable wait at the end of the movie, I didn't see a screen credit for him either.

Maybe Cullinan's name was buried in the fine print amongst the drivers. Anyway, it sure as hell isn't prominent.

Which is why, in an attempt to redress an injustice, I've put Thomas Cullinan on the title of this post and left Sofia Coppola off it entirely. So she can see how it feels. Because I know she's bound to read this.

Anyway, The Beguiled is really a perfect Gothic tale about an isolated group of women with a predatory male put among them.

The male is Corporal John McBurney, a wounded soldier. Initially helpless, he is taken, in an act of Christian charity, into a girls' school to recover and heal. He is the only man on the premises.

McBurney is a Union trooper amongst Confederate women, so he is the enemy. But he is also the enemy in a more profound and basic sense. He's a liar, manipulator and seducer. 

And as soon as he is well enough, McBurney is clumping furtively up the stairs on his crutches to sleep with the school's most flirtatious and precocious teenage student. 

In the 1971 movie the girl is called Carol. Here, in the first of many pointless and unhelpful changes, she's called Alicia.

The turning point in the story is when our "hero" is discovered in the girl's bed by a jealous teacher and pushed down the stairs. His injured leg is so badly damaged that amputation is the only option (or is it?)...

The loss of McBurney's leg is a powerful castration metaphor, and the sexual dynamics of this tale are profound, deep and troubling.

Or, at least, they should be. Sadly Sofia Coppola's version of the movie is pallid, bungled and utterly ineffectual.

McBurney, the Eastwood role, is here played by Colin Farrell. Not a bad choice at all. He has the smarmy virility and charm required by the part. Indeed he is a weaselly greaser in somewhat the same mould as the young Clint Eastwood.  

Some would argue that Farrell is a better actor than Eastwood, but Eastwood is unquestionably the more potent and charismatic star. So when Sofia Coppola's script begins to screw up, the movie is well and truly sunk.

The cast consists of talented performers. As Martha, the owner of the school, Nicole Kidman has the requisite neurotic fragility. It's questionable whether Kirsten Dunst is suitable to play her plain-jane old maid second in command. But Elle Fanning is just right, as the young temptress who will literally be McBurney's downfall.

One of the big mistakes of Coppola's script (and it has not gone unremarked) is to eliminate the only black character in the story. Hallie is the school's slave and she was magnificently played by Mae Mercer in the original movie.

Here she doesn't exist, presumably to make the other women more "sympathetic" by soft pedalling the fact that they're slave owners. But the film is fatally weakened by losing an important character. And of course a black actor lost a job into the bargain.

But the worst mistake by Sofia Coppola is racing hastily from the sympathetic and charming McBurney to the demonic and legless McBurney. The transition in the film is so abrupt as to be baffling. Or laughable. 

And it throws the whole movie off. Effectively the mid section of the picture doesn't exist. Sofia Coppola's movie is 94 minutes versus 105 for the original, but it feels like a lot more is missing than that.

This is because virtually every creative decision Coppola makes weakens and vitiates the material. But at least this film prompted me buy a Blu-ray of the 1971 version.

Watching it, what immediately struck me about the original is how much more effective the acting is, in every single role.

Indeed with the exception of a scene where McBurney's leg is buried (it goes thump into the ground — nice work, Sofia!) everything is better in the 1971 film, and I will post about that movie soon.

It's startling, and a little depressing to see how Sofia Coppola has screwed the pooch here so completely. It is hard to believe such potent material could be botched so completely, but she's managed it.
At least this movie got me — and hopefully some others — watching the original version. 

And, more importantly, it has brought Thomas Cullinan's novel back into print after being unavailable for decades. 

So we have that to thank Sofia Coppola for.

(Image credits: Only one poster at Imp Awards. The quad version is from eBay. The striking pink and black graphic version by Pawjanka is from Deviant Art. The black and white photographic poster is from Pinterest. The stretched image version is from Mad About Moviez. The typographic version is also from Pinterest. "In Theaters June 23" is from TMC.)

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