Back in 1971, Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry) steered Clint Eastwood into The Beguiled, where the actor played an injured Civil War Union soldier brought to a Confederate girls’ boarding school with its ragtag collection of inhabitants, whom he attempts to tease and manipulate to get them to do his bidding. With the focus squarely on Eastwood, the narrative tips towards his blunt and violent masculinity, which one supposes might have been fitting for the period.
Enter Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) to revisit this story, placing her own decidedly white female-centric stamp on the proceedings, trapping a quite game Colin Farrell in this Southern henhouse with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning as the featured female leads. Coppola doesn’t expand the narrative, based on Cleveland native Thomas Cullinan’s novel, but she insinuates deeper backstories for this collection of women, both young and old, that stir a simmering stew of tensions and jealousies that fit her sensibilities.
Coppola provides the setting for Kidman to lay bare the brittle nature of Miss Martha, the mistress of the boarding school; for Dunst’s Edwina to pick herself up for one last chance to escape her approaching spinsterhood fate via the arms of Farrell’s Corporal McBurney, and for Fanning to infuse young Alicia with an eerily contemporary teenage disdain and a willingness to push social and sexual boundaries. In its best moments, The Beguiled recalls the pristine hothouse drama of her adaptation of the novel The Virgin Suicides.
It is unfortunate that Coppola finds herself dogged by accusations steaming from her curious whitewashing of the narrative, drawing unwanted attention in this age of intersectionality. She removed one of the novel’s and earlier film’s characters, an enslaved African-American woman. For a filmmaker noted for her ability to spotlight characters generally rendered either mute or invisible, that choice reveals a key misstep. Coppola could have used that character to her advantage. Instead, she surrendered the chance to illuminate another potentially fascinating (and equally beguiling) woman of substance. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: B