Jul 30, 2017
by Diane McCurdy, Film and Book Reviews
In 1966, Thomas Cullinan penned a novel with a creative premise which centered around a small group of girls and their teachers whose school has been isolated by the Civil War. It took place in Louisiana in 1863. While hunting for mushrooms in the forest the youngest student finds a Yankee soldier with a wounded leg. She supports him as he limps back to take refuge in their columned but decaying mansion. Once there, all kinds of demons are unleashed. Deceit, jealousy, sexual repression simmer beneath a veil of civility and Christian charity. The book was called The Painted Devil. Over time the name changed and it became known as The Beguiled, a much more appropriate title but slightly ambiguous because it is difficult, at times, to tell who is being beguiled and who is doing the beguiling.
The book is written as a character study with rotating points of view: The five students, their two teachers and their maid, Mattie. It is like looking at the same picture from different angles. The reader can see how the soldier enters into the lives of all, forming alliances and fomenting suspicions thereby pitting one against the other. All are totally mesmerized and fascinated by the presence of the reluctant corporal, a recent immigrant from Ireland who happened to fall into the military for lack of any other direction. When caught in bed with one student, he infuriates another who pushes him down the stairs and exacerbates his injury so much so that it requires amputation of his leg. Or is the excision of the offending limb retaliation? That conclusion is left to the reader. His personality changes, at this point, and he becomes a tyrant assuming full charge.
The story was first filmed in 1971. It starred Clint Eastwood as the wounded soldier playing against type. The movie going audience expected it to be an action film because of the reputation of its star and was disappointed that it was a brooding, atmospheric, psychological study. It bombed at the box office but is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
In its latest incarnation Nicole Kidman plays the icy head mistress. Colin Farrell as the soldier is much better cast than Eastwood as Farrell really is Irish and exudes with ease that piquant Irish charm indicative of his character. Elle Fanning, an ingenue du jour, is one of the older girls. It is directed with a feminist bent by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides). Coppola has been criticized for omitting the role of the black maid. She said that she did it out of respect not expediency. It is a difficult position to accept considering that the maid writes her own chapter in the original source material and it would have added yet another layer to an already multi-layered piece. Mattie was the only one who was not bewitched by the soldier. Coppola’s direction is moody. Spanish moss languidly floats below sunbeams that penetrate the groves of trees, lovely but eerie. Always there is a whiff of decadence underneath the facade of the prim and proper Southern Belles. The Southern Gothic genre, no matter how it is interpreted, is always engaging, haunting and sometimes horrific.
OFFICIAL TRAILER: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMVe--_QwV8
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