Movie Review: Coppola tries for a daffy and dark “Beguiled”

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Sofia Coppola doesn’t acknowledge the earlier Clint Eastwood/Don Siegel film of “The Beguiled,” or even mention the Thomas Cullinan source novel in the credits.

“Written and directed by Sofia Coppola.”

Perhaps she never read it, or saw the earlier movie. Because her daffy and dark spin on the Gothic and macabre Civil War story, while peppered with comedy-of-manners laughs, has not a moment of dread and turns a tale of sexual temptation and repeated betrayals and revenge into Jane Austen with a drawl.

It’s something of a farce. The film utterly misses the point, another “toast of Cannes” failure, this one from the director of “Marie Antoinette.”

Nicole Kidman is Miss Martha, presiding over an island of gentility in 1864 Virginia, a finishing school for girls she runs out of a self-sufficient but somewhat rundown antebellum mansion.

Miss Martha and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) teach French, music and manners to the last five girls in their charge, children unable to go home to Atlanta or Savannah or even Richmond as the war rages around them. They tend the garden as their slaves have “run off,” dress impeccably, have vespers after each evening’s meal and dread the coming of the “Bluebellies,” who “rape every Southern woman they come across.”

But when a wounded Union deserter (Colin Farrell) crosses their path, Miss Martha is torn. Sure, she could turn him in, do her “duty.” But he’s a teachable moment, too. So they take him in and she stitches him up, showing the girls “the Christian thing to do.”

And he is, after all, handsome. So before you can say “Fiddle dee dee,” the girls, led by the sexually worked up Alicia (Elle Fanning, in full vamp) and the teachers are competing for his recovery time and his attentions.

When the Irish Corporal McBurney wakes up, he sizes up the situation and starts his play. He has two armies to elude, even after his leg heals. So he turns on the charm, beguiling even the littlest students and disarming the headmistress with his candor about his first taste of battle.

“You ran?”

“I did. I surely to God did.”

The script lets Kidman balance an arm’s-length wariness with sexual longing, and Dunst makes a shockingly good spinster, embracing a delicate surrender to come-ons about “such a delicate beauty as yours.”

Fanning, her hair draped over her eyes like a covergirl on Confederate Vogue, is laughably over-the-top.

And Farrell literally bats his eyes at them all, turning cheeks red, motives impure and jealousies on.

“Now you stop your giggling!”

Coppola doesn’t even try to present a version of Civil War women struggling at home, as “Cold Mountain” and the indie thriller “The Keeping Room” and even “Gone With the Wind” managed. Perhaps she can be forgiven for stripping slavery and interracial temptation/white male power over female African-Americans as subtexts.

And even though the romantic, Spanish moss-draped oaks of Louisiana are international shorthand for “the Old South,” the film’s limited settings look nothing like Virginia, and the accents are generic drawls.

Coppola stripped the tale, cut the length, eschews menace and goes easy on the malice, which made the earlier version of the story work. Even as an arch, serio-comic female revenge fantasy, this “Beguiled” fails to cast the necessary spell.

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MPAA Rating:R for some sexuality

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell

Credits: Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the Thomas Cullinan novel. A Focus Features release.

Running time: 1:33

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