Hot for Soldier: "The Beguiled" cunning, richly textured and simmering with carnal tension

The Beguiled (2017) 
93 min., rated R.

Throughout her entire career working behind the camera—1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” 2010’s “Somewhere” and 2013’s “The Bling Ring”—filmmaking auteur Sofia Coppola has forever displayed a command of tone and a rich mood with an observant eye, a fondness for languid pacing, and artistic choices that feel like the right ones. Her latest, “The Beguiled,” lends itself to her personal touch, and while it is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, a female perspective behind this thematically loaded material makes a detectable difference and makes the film's existence necessary. Never the overheated melodrama that was Don Siegel’s more explicit 1971 potboiler of the same name with Clint Eastwood, writer-director Coppola’s handsomely shot, exquisitely acted and defiantly feminine version of “The Beguiled” more than lives up to the name with cunning restraint.

Three years into the Civil War in 1864, Virginia, the orphaned young ladies of Farnsworth Seminary carry on with their French lesson and outdoor chores as young Amy (Oona Laurence) goes out to pick a basket of mushrooms in the woods but returns with a wounded Union soldier. The Yankee is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish immigrant in need of serious medical attention. Under the thumb of stern headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the girls are divided in their views on taking John in until he’s in good health or hanging a blue rag on their plantation’s gag to signal the presence of an enemy soldier to the Confederates. Harboring the soldier in the music room, Miss Martha decides to stitch up his wounds and bathe him in hopes that he will have a speedy recovery and departure. Not used to having a visitor, especially one that is a man, the girls are all affected by John, and for giggly teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) and repressed teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), pent-up feelings begin bubbling to the surface. When his leg heals, John doesn’t just leave yet but tends to the garden, while some of the ladies show him some “real Southern hospitality.” Does John mean any harm?

Stripped down to sexually charged inference, “The Beguiled” is tangibly soaked in longing and Deep South humidity but also peppered with a sly cheekiness. Although Sofia Coppola excised the flashbacks, the internal monologues of the women, and the existence of the seminary’s black slave—this time, Amy has a line that logically and efficiently explains that the slaves have left—she retains a lot of the same lines of dialogue and most of the same narrative beats, and yet, still makes the film her own without inviting the viewer to compare the 1971 and 2017 films as the latter plays out. Even with a bodice-ripping moment of passion and a close-up of a flesh wound, this period Southern Gothic tale suggests more than it shows, and it’s more impactful for it. Coppola still keeps the carnal tension and sense of jealousy simmering inside the school-turned-hotbed, adding more nuance this time around, so that none of the female characters feel boxed in as wicked harpies or undersexed spinsters.

Consistent with every one of her films, Coppola wrings sterling performances from her performers who all work on a level of naturalism. Leading the brood is Nicole Kidman, deliciously fierce but suggestive as Miss Martha Farnsworth, who does not mince words with an “unwanted visitor” in her house but might feel different with a man in the house since her husband died in the war. As buttoned-up Edwina, Kirsten Dunst is outstanding in her aching desire to be taken away by John, who could be her only chance. There’s always something particularly beguiling about Elle Fanning (who previously worked with Coppola on “Somewhere”), as the libidinous Alicia who can barely contain her recently discovered sexuality and flirtatious urges that could get her in trouble. This is an ensemble piece, each character in the all-girls seminary filled by young talent, including the wonderfully unaffected Oona Laurence (2015's "Southpaw"), as Amy who tries seeing the good in John; Angourie Rice, who held her own and stole scenes opposite Ryan Gosling in 2016’s “The Nice Guys," as the musically inclined Jane; Addison Riecke, as Marie; and Emma Howard, as Emily. As the seductive and potentially dangerous stranger, Colin Farrell is the one being objectified here and effectively keeps John McBurney’s true colors and motivations ambiguous to the very end. Like the casting of a ruggedly sexy 40-year-old Clint Eastwood in the ’71 version, one can certainly see what the women in this film see in the charming, easy-on-the-eyes Farrell.

“The Beguiled” is almost a touch too tasteful when it seems on the verge of growing darker and kinkier, but there is still a devilish sense of manipulation behind the polite smiles and serving of apple pie. Never have so many unspoken glances and the sight of a woman washing a man’s body felt so sensuous and forbidden. At the Farnsworth Seminary, which is like a prison away from the outside world, there hasn’t been a man around, so when one finally shows up, all of the women like having one around. Shooting in 35 mm, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd breathes misty, mossy texture into each striking frame, whether it’s soft and pastel or bathed in duskiness like a moving chiaroscuro painting under candlelight; any single image is beautiful enough to be hung on a wall. Next to the sounds of the cicadas and the thunder-like cannons heard in the distance, the score by Phoenix (Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars, is the band’s frontman) is also moody perfection. Even as an original take on this material already exists, Sofia Coppola’s admirably subtle vision trusts the dynamic of the characters and a gender power struggle for dramatic tension.

Grade: B +