The Beguiled ’71 vs The Beguiled ’17

I recommend reading Keith’s thoughts about the 2017 remake found here:

REVIEW: “The Beguiled”

The 1971 Version

Three years into the Civil War, handsome Union soldier John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is discovered and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies. At first, he is delighted to be surrounded by the cloistered beauty of varying ages. An African American slave, Hallie,  (blues singer Mae Mercer) who remains on the estate and assists headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page, Hondo, Sweet Bird of Youth), try to keep order among the girls who are drawn to their new guest. The girls learn French, garden, knit and embroider, and take the post to look out for Union soldiers while getting updates from Southern soldiers as they pass by the imposing wrought-iron gate that keeps the girls in like a prison.

The 1971 version was produced and directed Don Siegel (Eastwood and he worked together in five films) was based on the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan. The 1971 version focused on sexual taboos and sexual repression created by isolation of the war. The male is the victim and Eastwood falls into the den of the black widow and her spiders. The theme of castration is outwardly expressed.

The 2017 Version 

In this version, headmistress Martha is played by the wispy, haunted, out-of-breath Nicole Kidman.  Colin Firth is Corporal John McBurney. Kirsten Dunst is the plump, aging spinster who wants to escape her confining post as the teacher at the school and hopes John will save her.

The weakness of one version was the strength of the other so that trying to decide which was better was difficult. Sofia Coppola‘s outstanding effort was her directorship. Applauds all around for capturing the humid, suffocating setting of trees and brush and cicadas and for creating an authentic historical climate of 1863 even though she filmed it at Lousiana’s Madewood Plantation while the location was said to be in Virginia.  Fine, I’ll give that to her because the location made for an ideal stage. Sofia does well with costumes in her films and uses them to accentuate the personalities of her characters. In this case, her female cast wears white and it is appropriate as boarding school garb and innocence even though they are all a bit too starched and brand new for a timeworn, ragged estate three years into the war. The ending shot was outstanding. It was a daguerreotype, the outcome frozen and ghostly. White seemed to be a motif Coppola played with throughout the 90 minutes.

The 2017 film felt like a lot of short stories I’ve read over the years and loved. The ghost stories of George Eliot, Daphne du Maurier, Shirley Jackson, and Virginia Woolf come to mind. Sin is insinuated rather than fleshed out and laid on the table. (sorry) You’d get more of that from the 1971 version. While I appreciated the camera angles from Eastwood’s perspective and the manual pull in and out of the lens from Dan Spiegel, the occasional harpsichord felt like you were in a Vincent Price film. Not that that’s bad, just dated. However, the acting was much better in the 1971 version especially the “hussy” Carol played by Jo Ann Harris.

The biggest contrast between both versions was the matchup between Miss Martha the headmistress and Corporal McBurney. The 1971 version is better because of Geraldine Page. The motivating events propelled her performance to a higher, memorable plateau while validating the decisions of the others. I felt Sofia’s screenplay softened and blurred the characters. Since this is a film about relationships, Coppola’s characters paled by comparison. If you took Sophia’s directing and inserted the 1971 cast into her Southern setting, you’d have an outstanding film. As it is, I’d rate the 2017 version as a 3.5 and the 1971 version a 4. 

Colin Firth and the Strategy of Actors

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Colin Firth is a British actor I never tire watching even if his films are tiresome. His vulnerable, winning portrayals are due to his inquisitive eyes, expressive facial features, and an overall countenance that is understated yet pervasive. His gift combines the trials of an uncomfortable male while exuding a gentleman persona that captures the heart of his leading ladies. Initially you saw him in period comedies and dramas — Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC television series of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare in Love (1998), or in the flamboyant film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (2002) come to mind. Contemporary characters such as Mark in Bridget Jones’s Diary or Jamie in Love Actually, continue his trend of playing the conservative Brit in a wacky situation representing British dry humor for which he is a leader. And he deserved to be nominated for his performance in The King’s Speech (2010) for which he won Best Actor at the Oscars. He has the luxury to pick modern dramas or comedies. So then….

This brings me to ponder, in general, the strategy of the actor and his career. Let’s assume they all crave a forty-year career with stats bearing longevity and accolades to clutter the walls and mantles of their homes, and if British, to be a Sir or Dame would be an honor.

Let’s face it. Firth is a fine actor who plays in too many mediocre films. Does that help or hurt him? Consider Anthony Hopkins. He, too, is a fine actor who has starred in a life time of mediocre films. He’s knighted. He’s prolific. His performances are predictable. I can count on one hand superior performances while sixty others are forgettable. Counter that with the strategy of British/Irish Daniel Day-Lewis (and arguably Leonardo DiCaprio who is adopting DDL strategy) of selecting few roles. Quality vs. quantity. I remember every film DDL has made (and Leo) while the amount of films Colin Firth has made–well, can you remember more than a handful? But is Mama, Mia good?

Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.
Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.

I recently watched Railway Man. It had all the promise of an outstanding film. It had the cast. The story. And yet, there was something missing. The film was about Eric Lomax’s struggle with PTSD. Decades later. It debilitated not only him, but his mates who survived the torture of the infamous Burma Railway and the Japanese labor camp. Some are suicidal and most are incapable of sustaining emotional connections. The true story has a fantastic twist of forgiveness and closure; it’s the best ending that borders on a fairy tale. How amazing that Takeshi Nagase and Eric Lomax as the torturer and the tortured could become by the end of their lives friends. It’s incredulous, and yet, there it is, nothing short of inspirational.

When you have Firth, Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård in a film portraying true events, I wonder and hope the film has potential to be stellar. But this film is nothing compared to the classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). In The Railway Man, the acting by Firth is fine. Everyone’s acting in the film is strong. So is it the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson that seems lackluster and paling in comparison to other World War II films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist?  If you want to know the history behind Eric Lomax and The Railway Man, check out this site for differentiating Hollywood truth and fiction HERE.   My point is, The Railway Man is a magical story, and it didn’t come off that way to me. It felt mediocre. That’s a crime.

It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.
It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Did you like it? I saw some British dark humor in it that had me chuckling. Like Shaun of the Dead (2004), the scene where Galahad (Firth) swings through a radical congregation with a sword and decapitates the zombies to the tune of “Free Bird”.  Well, it was funny, in a sick way that had me recollecting Monty Python and the Black Knight scene in forest. “Tis but a scratch!” Dark British humor. Gotta love it.  However, the entire time I am watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, I kept wondering why Colin Firth chose to be in it? It was an awkward film. Samuel L. Jackson was horrible. It was a mediocre film at best.  

Because Firth can play comedy and drama smartly, like a favorite doll, I want to pick him up and place him in only great films. He’s a gifted actor who seems to stick out awkwardly in mediocre films. What do you think?

Philip Glass and The Hours (2002)

He’s prolific and complicated, an influential American composer, a genius whose distinctive style of creating melodic patterns of diatonic harmonies transfers from the operatic to symphonic, from concertos to film scores. Critics over the decades have disliked his repetitive sequences of notes or his assaulting experimentation. He cares not, for his art is an expression that cannot be harnessed or altered to suit the fancies of others. Here is an informative article about Glass by Tom Service from The Guardian, “A Music Guide to Philip Glass” . 

Personally, I like his piano etudes, his Violin Concerto no. 1, his String Quartet no. 3 “Mishima” and most of all, his film scores. Another interesting way of exploring Philip Glass is by watching the 2007 documentary by Scott Hicks, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer winner is an excellent book, but this is a rare instance where the film version is equal, if not surpasses, the reading experience. This is due to the acting, the editing, and the score. The film blends the lives of three women separated by time but united with problems of depression, alienation, suffocation, and the hardest part of life–getting through the hours when each one feels like a drop of water on the forehead. With a superb cast and subtle, sensitive performances by everyone:  Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Dillane, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, and Miranda Richardson, the score functions as a sad waltz corresponding to the plight of three women who seek freedom from their pain. Suicide is a major theme. Death a constant companion. While these are heavy topics, the script adapted by David Hare, connects the three women in a single day, echoing insights given in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. One way this is accomplished is through the editing. Each woman performs the same daily task. The lost look in the morning, the reflection at the mirror as if to say, “Must we be together, again?” Or, the arrangement of flowers throughout the home does not comfort or bring cheer.

Nicole Kidman never looked or acted better in this Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf. Julianne Moore played the 50s suburbanite wife who can’t bake a cake and whose needy son somehow senses her life is a fraud. Meryl Streep’s Clarissa needs to take care of her dying friend to feel alive while the dying friend experiences the mother he never had. The warped co-dependent relationship is executed with Ed Harris with painful results. This is a beautiful, symmetrical, and satisfying film.

Other Philip Glass scores I love:

The Truman Show (1998)

Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) “Potala”

Notes on a Scandal (2006) 

The Illusionist (2006)

The Fog of War 

What about you? What are your favorite Philip Glass contributions? 

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