Oh crap, not another remake. Can't these yahoos in Hollywood come up with a single goddamn original idea? Next thing you know, they'll be making another Blade Runner.
But wait! What's this? A film, based on an earlier film, that actually justifies its existence, and then some? Well, what do you know. By taking the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle The Beguiled and touching it up with some Southern Gothic feminism, director Sofia Coppola has crafted an enchanting, dark, sometimes funny Civil War–era battle of the sexes that's one of the more smartly provocative movies of the summer.
Inhabiting the Eastwood role as Union corporal John McBurney is Colin Farrell. He's the weakest link in an impressive cast, perhaps by intention. McBurney is discovered, badly wounded, in a Virginia forest by Amy (Oona Laurence), a young student at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies who's out picking mushrooms. (Those fungi will be important later on.)
Recuperating at the girls' school, McBurney insinuates himself into the lives of its residents, most notably headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), and the ripest of the six remaining students, Alicia (Elle Fanning). They interrupt their daily routine of conjugating French verbs and practicing needlepoint to give the enemy soldier a very thorough washing and sew up his injured leg.
Initially intending to allow him to recuperate only long enough so that he can be safely tendered to nearby Confederate troops as a prisoner, the women gradually become fascinated by their involuntary guest. McBurney does his best to facilitate the process, putting Farrell's caterpillar eyebrows and purring brogue to good use. (Once he gets a shave, he even ends up with Eastwoodian sideburns.)
The setup, then, could lend itself to a hothouse melodrama or a wish-fulfillment sexploitation scenario. But the place turns out to be less Castle Anthrax ("After the spanking, the oral sex!") than Castle Gangrene. For the benefit of those who have not seen the 1971 edition—which makes a fascinating contrast with Dirty Harry, released the same year—I'll skip the gorier details.
Farrell, as mentioned, is serviceable in a role that plays against macho expectations (though not so drastically as in The Lobster). But it's the women who impress. Kidman is making a nice side career out of these high-necked, hot-blooded gothic ladies in stuff like The Others and Stoker; here, she gets the movie's best line: "Edwina, bring me the anatomy book." Dunst matches her as the plain, lovelorn Edwina, while Fanning demonstrates, as if there remained any doubt, that she's bound for a more adventurous, fascinating career than her big sister Dakota.
This is another of Coppola's portraits of insulated, almost incestuous groups, cut off from the outside world either literally or emotionally: The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring, Somewhere, and Lost in Translation all fit the bill. It's almost surprising, even, that she chose to excise a subplot in the original that referred to the headmistress's sexual affair with her own (now dead) brother. Then again, Coppola's screenplay is based on Thomas Cullinan's source novel and not the 1971 film's screenplay.
Another change from the Eastwood film that has drawn some fire is the absence of an African American slave character. In fact, there's no mention of slavery at all, other than something brief along the lines of "All the slaves left before the start of the movie!" It might be possible to understand this choice as one that reflects the isolated, narrow perspectives of The Beguiled's characters—just as it's also possible to regret how tone-deaf that decision feels.
That sin of omission is one of the movie's few egregious flaws. It's stunningly photographed by Philippe Le Sourd, and it conjures a humid, dreamlike mood that's memorably transporting. Whichever characters you end up thinking the title applies to, it's just as likely to refer to viewers of The Beguiled.