Review: 'The Beguiled'

Sofia Coppola reboot of 1971 drama is less beguiling than bewildering
It's unclear what prompts these Confederate ladies to take in a Union deserter in 'The Beguiled'?

In 1864, a wounded Union deserter becomes a fox in a henhouse. In both versions of The Beguiled (1971/2017) Corporal McBurney manipulates the Confederate ladies of a small finishing school. Is it Christian love or devilish lust that makes the half-dozen ladies conceal the enemy soldier from the patrolling Confederate troops? It's unclear who the title refers to, unless everyone here is beguiled, and a self-beguiler.

In the thin, pretty-pretty Sofia Coppola re-do, McBurney (Colin Farrell) tries to flirt the ladies into submission ... for a time, the Irish accent, the melting glances and the outrageous compliments work. He's always watching, seeing how his hostesses are taking his show of gentlemanly behavior. The easiest pickings would seem to be Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, playing the Elizabeth Hartman old-maid part) but she's someone who can match McBurney's almost periscopic side eye: she's not as weak as she looks.

Coppola's Cannes-honored remake has a shorter running time than the Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood original, and yet that original seemed like a speedier pulp version of D. H. Lawrence, with Geraldine Page excelling as the head witch in charge. A well-written slave character with mixed loyalties (Mae Mercer) is purged. The class of '71's Jo Ann Harris, a torrid-eyed wanton, is replaced by a more inwardly neurotic Elle Fanning (begowned, Fanning looks more like Dorothy Gish than ever.) Nicole Kidman replaces Page. The only thing to be said about Kidman here is that Isabelle Huppert can't be everywhere at once.

Coppola seems to be one of those directors who believe that if you get the actors into the right costumes, the story will tell itself. She emphasizes fancy clothes taken carefully out of wrappings, the lacing of a corset, or buttons rattling like a hail storm when McBurney rips a bodice. If the first Beguiled was a hothouse, this is more of a boutique, uncommitted to horror, effective melodrama or social comedy. ("Good girls go bad!" say the ads, and for once they're not oversimplifying the movie.) This Beguiled has no dirt under its fingernails. Watching this Virgin Homicides of Coppola, it's unclear whether the movie is a protest against the old-time women's world of caged seclusion, or a celebration of those good old days when a lady sat, looked elegant, and waited for stuff to be brought to her.

The Beguiled
R, 94 Mins.

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