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Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ has its charms but should have been more beguiling

In the Civil War, a Union soldier (Colin Farrell) hopes to ingratiate himself with his captors, especially a boarding school headmistress (Nicole Kidman).
In the Civil War, a Union soldier (Colin Farrell) hopes to ingratiate himself with his captors, especially a boarding school headmistress (Nicole Kidman). Focus Features

Riding a tsunami of high expectations (she’s only the second woman to be named best director at the Cannes film fest), Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is poised to become the Second Coming of feminist cinema.

Except that it isn’t. Not even close.

It’s not a bad movie. “The Beguiled” (based on the same novel as the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood version) is fiercely atmospheric and slyly subversive. It’s well acted, and the physical production is impressive.

But it’s emotionally remote and something of a bore. Siegel may have been a pulp filmmaker, but his melodramatic instincts were fun at least.

Coppola’s screenplay offers some new dialogue, but the plot arc is mostly faithful to the earlier movie and the novel.

During the Civil War, a handful of teachers and students at a Virginia boarding school for women discover a wounded Union soldier, Cpl. McBurney (Colin Farrell). They sew up his mangled leg, intending to turn him over to the rebel home guard when he’s healed.

But the presence of a potent male sets off yearnings in the residents. Among them is the outwardly formidable headmistress (Nicole Kidman), a lonely teacher (Kirsten Dunst), a spoiled teen on the cusp of sexuality (Elle Fanning) and even a small girl (Oona Laurence) looking for a playmate.

The canny blue-belly works the situation, becoming to each woman or girl just what she requires in this testosterone-starved environment.

Those looking for a fresh feminist twist to the material will be disappointed. There’s less about women’s theory here than about the dark corners of the human psyche: sexual fear and repression, jealousy, revenge, exploitation.

Even the youngest and most innocent of the schoolgirls is capable of dark deeds … for example, harvesting poisonous mushrooms for the fungi-fond Yank.

That said, Coppola and her players do a good job of slowly (perhaps too slowly) stripping away each character’s veneer. Farrell’s Union soldier initially asserts himself as a decent, thankful, nonthreatening presence. That won’t last.

Kidman’s Miss Martha is torn between doing the “proper” thing — i.e., sending McBurney to a POW camp where he will undoubtedly die — and finding excuses to keep him in the house. Particularly good is Dunst as a virginal spinster who leaps at the opportunity for a bit of romance, no matter how illicit.

Coppola and her crew have created this world in haunting detail, from the opening passage — a child works her way through a towering cathedral of trees — to the mist and hanging moss that seem to cut the place off from the rest of the world.

Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography gives the impression that we’re observing a doll house in an exquisitely lit diorama, and anything beyond the school’s iron gates is blurred and shrouded in shadow. Even the sound design contributes to the feeling of isolation: the birds chirp against a background of distant cannon fire.

But ultimately “The Beguiled” is clinical when it should be compelling.

After the Cannes jury ignored obviously superior work like 2003’s “Lost in Translation” and even 2013’s devastatingly satiric “The Bling Ring,” one has to wonder why Coppola was honored this time around.

Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.

‘The Beguiled’

  1/2

Rated R for some sexuality.

Time: 1:33.

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