A man should never trust girls and teachers in a seminary for young ladies. Such is the built-in message, intended or not, of writer-director Sophia Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” a remake of the 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page and based on Thomas P. Culligan’s novel “A Painted Devil.” Coppola has the right to have her film judged on its own, not necessarily in comparison with the former.
Her approach is a gently muted one that stands in contrast to its ultimate horror. It is filmed in soft colors that capture the atmosphere of a secluded Virginia location (In 1971 it was Mississippi), and the seminary is in a very stately mansion. The undercurrent of sexuality that occurs after a young student discovers a wounded Union soldier in the woods and, struggling to bear his leaning weight, brings him back to the southern seminary.
Led by the head mistress, Martha Farnsworth (----------a very cool and reserved Nicole Kidman), the young ladies do the Christian thing and help the wounded man. Martha skillfully sews up his gashes and later gently bathes him while he sleeps. We can sense her battle between repression and desire.
At this point it is important to identify the actor who plays the soldier, John McBurney, as charismatic Colin Farrell, who is capable of getting an audience on his side. The portrait he provides is key to what there is of the film’s emotional pull. He is grateful for the help, but he is inevitably tempted by the women around him, and as uptight as they are depicted, the temptation is mutual, especially in the case of Martha and Edwina, smolderingly played by attractive Kirsten Dunst.
The film takes its macabre turn when Edwina, captivated by McBurney and leading him into a violent seduction, catches him one night in the bed of another, and in a struggle when he tries to make up by pursuing her, is victimized when she pushes him a way and he falls down a long flight of stairs. His leg is broken and he is bleeding profusely.
Ostensibly to save him, Martha enlists aid in amputating his leg, and when he wakes up to the discovery, he is full of anger and shouts his rage. We feel for him, as he has not done anything worse than succumbing to sexual temptation. But this is a film underscored with retribution, and now a battle rages between him and the women who become his captors, and then with him turning the tables and trying to imprison them.
He softens his attitude, apologizes for his wrathful outbreak, and sits down to what he assumes to be a nice, peaceful candlelight dinner. Little does he know.
Most of what Coppola does is understated rather than piling on grisly effects for what is basically a horror movie in a Civil War setting. We see nothing of the war itself or life outside the seminary. One can appreciate Coppola’s coming to the material from a woman’s viewpoint, which makes the film especially interesting as well as absorbing. But her approach leaves one with a shiver rather than a shudder. A Focus Features release. Reviewed June 26, 2017.