Filmmaker Sofia Coppola is a mixed bag in terms of her big screen artistry as both an actress and movie-making siren. Specifically, Coppola’s auteur skills can run rather cold and dismissive (penning the flat and forgettable costume saga “Marie Antoinette”) or can inspire unexpected hypnotic greatness of roguish contemplation and isolation (as demonstrated in her Oscar-winning glossy, perceptive and seductive gem, “Lost in Translation”). She can also travel the familiar route of heavy-handed trashiness and despair as outlined in the moody and manipulative youth-oriented vehicles, “Somewhere” and “The Bling Ring.” Whatever the case, it appears that the adventurous eye of Coppola’s — no matter how misguided or masterful — remains an acquired taste for those that fancy the unpredictable big screen vision from the offspring of “The Godfather” guru and celluloid legend Francis Ford.
Somewhere in the middle of this bag is The Beguiled, an atmospheric and intense pulpy, southern Gothic soap opera drenched in old-fashioned, estrogen-friendly ambiance. Highly bombastic and visually refreshing in its dressy allure, Coppola’s wicked feminist fable set to the erratic backdrop of American Civil War potency, candlelight-fueled curiosities and sexual cynicism convincingly strokes the arousing senses at large. Effectively, Coppola (taking writer, director and producer credits) sprinkles her millennial remake with her tasty touch for twisted, tawdry trivialities that, although occasionally stagnant, captivates in its dramatic pockets of intensity and intrigue.
Older moviegoers may recall the original 1971 wartime melodrama starring Clint Eastwood (directed by Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” collaborator Don Siegel) of the same name. Interestingly, that version pulled no punches and was lustfully edgy for the genre and especially for its time. Siegel’s brand of psychological sexual urgency in his original blueprint pulled from the pages of Thomas Cullinan’s novel bordered on the horrific psyche (and hormonal hostility) of Eastwood’s wounded soldier as the surrounding desperate young women were the objects for his treacherous whims.
Coppola’s spin seems to lean more towards the chilling and sultry aspects of the disillusioned femme fatales that feel liberated in their dastardly desire to be deflowered. The milky-and-silky mixture pinning male vulnerability against slow burning female frothiness has some hearty bite that one cannot deny. However, the give-and-take that Coppola curiously taps into regarding repression, class struggle and sexual entanglement comes off as gently disjointed at times. Nevertheless, the so-called black comedy regarding the Mason-Dixon line sexual politics is wickedly realized, and there is a sardonic overtone that registers cunningly for the most part.
The setting for all this pent-up frustration takes place at a Virginia-based all-girls boarding school where injured Irish union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”) ends up convalescing after being discovered by one of the young female students. Overseeing the operation of the boarding school is the repressed and overly protective Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, “Lion”). Some of the charges under her watchful eye include the likes of soft-spoken Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, “Hidden Figures”), firecracker Alicia (Elle Fanning, “20th Century Women”), Amy (Oona Laurence, “Pete’s Dragon”) and Jane (Angourie Rice, “The Nice Guys”).
The handsome McBurney ends up serving as a distraction for the aristocratic little ladies looking to spread some unbridled passion in his direction. The charming McBurney is even on the randy radar of the normally reserved disciplinarian Miss Farnsworth. The lingering pettiness, resentment, jealousies and fatalistic fantasies all prove to be too much to handle as the Dublin-born soldier/dreamboy McBurney soon discovers . . .
Operating with stunning opulence, but tied down in Harlequin-induced cheesiness, The Beguiled is a cheeky portrait of orchestrated manipulation as it playfully delves into the untapped affairs of the heart. Coppola meshes together an ambitious live-action Hallmark card that screams female empowerment in all its rawness and recklessness. Particularly appealing is how the film conveys its amoral swagger and romanticism — both frivolously rewarding with its austere composition, yet slightly frustrating with its undefined boundaries between the seriousness and comical nuances of the film’s petticoat-wearing temptresses.
The performances are potently on the mark, however, especially by the mature presence of Kidman’s restrictive, old-school diva Farnsworth and Farrell’s banged-up boytoy McBurney. Dunst, Fanning, Laurence, Rice and newcomer Emma Howard all make it as solid junior-sized, angst-ridden seductresses, and it’s really the spirit of these impressionable, yet beguiling, ladies that keeps Coppola’s dress rehearsal from becoming a cotton-picking casualty.