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Colin Farrell wreaks havoc with Southern belles in 'The Beguiled'
Sofia Coppola's version of "The Beguiled," set in 1864 Virginia, takes the 1971 film version of the story and whumps it, gently, the way you whump a bedsheet before hanging it on a line to dry.
In narrative outline (with a couple of telling exceptions) it stays close to the feverish Clint Eastwood vehicle Don Siegel directed. But in terms of tone, sexual gaze and aesthetic priorities, it's another picture altogether, and a worthwhile one.
Coppola adapted her screenplay from the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. The story tells of an attractive Civil War deserter, a Union soldier taken in by the residents of an all-female Southern boarding school dripping in Spanish moss and repressed gentility.
Told from various perspectives, the novel borrowed both heat and humidity from Tennessee Williams, William Inge and other mid-20th century dramatists interested in foxes, henhouses and threatening sensual temptation.
Coppola's films have all gravitated toward a peculiar tension between "good" behavior and "bad," and "The Beguiled" fits right in. Discovered in the woods by young Amy (Oona Laurence), Cpl. McBurney (Colin Farrell) senses a golden opportunity in his protectors. The forlorn school's matriarch, wary both of Union soldiers and of temptations embodied by Farrell, is Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman).
She is not alone. Kirsten Dunst plays Miss Edwina, another schoolmarm who carries an air of hardened disappointment in life. She too finds herself drawn to this slyly wolfish interloper. "Grateful to be your prisoner," he tells the ladies.
Elle Fanning plays Miss Alicia, whose family name clearly was Trouble. Well-schooled in Southern belle gentility and hospitality, with a minor in seductive cunning, Alicia offers the match that lights the spark in this tinderbox of a scenario. All the women share an agenda, and that agenda is their power struggle with the man in their newly bestirred midst.
How "The Beguiled" plays out, as hinted at by the movie's trailer, suggests a somewhat more horror-inflected experience than the one Coppola has actually provided. The look of the film may not be all, but it's a lot. Coppola and her cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, shot "The Beguiled" on 35 mm film, in and around the same Louisiana mansion Beyonce used for "Lemonade." Here the soft-edged pastels gradually darken into a more sinister palette, as the sexual jealousies and recriminations combust.
Coppola doesn't elevate the material, exactly; more accurately, she treats it with a dryly comic reserve, as when Kidman gives her injured guest a sponge bath and the intimacy is almost too much for her to bear and still mind her manners.
Here's a line from the 1971 film destined never to make it into the 2017 version. "Guess you dryin' up like the rest of us women 'roun here," says a slave, played by Mae Mercer, as she milks a cow and comments to no one in particular about the state of things on the plantation-like girls' school. The Eastwood movie was proudly overripe, and its caveman sexual politics (in line with "Dirty Harry," which came later that same year) turned "The Beguiled" into a blunt lesson in the evils that women do when the wrong man comes calling.
Coppola removed the slave characters from her version of the story. She has taken a lot of grief for that decision, most of it justified. She also excised the riper Gothic elements, including the matriarch's incestuous love for her late brother. The '71 edition, according to the man who directed it, came down to "the basic desire of women to castrate men." Coppola sees things slightly differently.
"The Beguiled" probably could've benefited from a little more energy in its telling. Still, Coppola offers some gorgeous images of the past made present. When Laurence sits high in a tree, reading a book, the shot is held just long enough to stick. The performances, all of a piece and working with the same hushed intensity, keep a simple story moving toward its destination.
The occasional sound of distant cannons notwithstanding, this hothouse of desire doesn't seem to exist in the real world. The one created by Coppola casts its own, calm spell.
3 out of 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some sexuality)
Running time: 1:34