PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — In 1971, The Beguiled was a Clint Eastwood movie, which director Don Siegel shot from the male protagonist’s point-of-view.
But the remake is a movie about the group of female characters, from whose point-of-view director Sofia Coppola shoots.
Both approaches work moderately well.
The reboot is a Southern gothic thriller, set in Virginia in 1864, while the Civil War is three years old and still raging.
We’re at the dilapidated Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, which has seen better days.
Remaining are five particularly vulnerable and genteel students, including Elle Fanning’s flirtatious Alicia.
They have been more or less sheltered from the outside world, and are in residence along with two staff members, played by Nicole Kidman as their prim headmistress and Kirsten Dunst as their melancholy French teacher.
That’s when they find a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney from Dublin, a helpless but charming-when-he-wants-to-be deserter played by Colin Farrell, in the woods with a leg full of buckshot.
They welcome him and take him in – and then some, even planning a dinner party in his honor as he recovers and in advance of being handed over to the Confederate authorities.
But the rooster in this henhouse is ingratiating and manipulative, and lust rears its head, as does jealousy.
Innocence is suddenly surprisingly elusive, replaced by palpable sexual tension. Rivalries expand.
In fact, all kinds of new or unfamiliar feelings and moods seem to be bouncing off the walls.
And these girls are not helpless victims but, it turns out, worthy and surprisingly resourceful adversaries and rivals who are asserting their identity and are fascinated by and curious about this interloper whose mere presence along changes the stuffy atmosphere they are used to.
Writer-director Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring), whose screenplay is based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan, sees her film not so much as a remake as a re-interpretation that explores sexual repression with thoughtful skill and a certain amount of intelligent ambiguity.
It’s beautifully shot and competently acted, although the performances don’t bring the characters into three-dimensional relief.
But it also seems authentic, with obvious attention paid to 1860s detail.
As for the slow-building suspense, it could be a lot more gripping. But it suffices in an understated way.
And while there is substantial situational humor in the film’s first half, the film takes quite the dark turn in the second half as it becomes something of an offbeat horror film.
All of that said, as compelling as the dramatic buildup is, it’s not emotionally engaging enough for us to forgive that the film stops instead of ends.
Still, we’ll heal 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for The Beguiled, a handsome period melodrama that’s just a bit less beguiling than it wants to be.