“The Beguiled” is a strange and uncomfortable film in both of its iterations. Sofia Coppola’s take is more nuanced than the 1971 original, with deeper insight into the ladies of Ms. Farnsworth’s Seminary and perhaps not enough into the wounded s
oldier who disrupts their lives.
The writer-director brings her characteristic elegance to the film, which, like the original, is based on the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. Coppola’s Civil War South is all mossy woods, buttoned-up dresses and gated plantations, realized in immaculate detail. So many shots, including the eerie final image, could be framed and popped into a museum.
While Coppola broadens the story’s female characters beyond the stereotypes shown in 1971, she leaves the soldier’s motives less clear, which makes his life-altering transgression harder to understand.
The story is set in Virginia in 1864. Despite the war raging right outside her property, Ms. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) has continued to run her Seminary for Young Ladies, with a single teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and five students. Everything changes for them when one of the youngest girls brings home a badly wounded Union soldier she discovered during a walk in the woods.
“You are a most unwelcome visitor,” Ms. Farnsworth tells the handsome Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) after stitching up his tattered leg and giving him a sponge bath.
McBurney is locked in the music room, but his presence in the house causes a stir among its residents, distracting them from their daily routine of Bible studies, French lessons and etiquette practice. One girl fears they could face consequences for harboring an enemy. Another wants him to meet her pet turtle. One of the older students tries to seduce him. Edwina and Ms. Farnsworth spend the most time with the soldier as they are tasked with his care, but all of the young ladies want his attention.
One of the most charming and lighthearted scenes is when a healing McBurney is invited to dinner and each of the young women shows up in her fanciest gown.
Those dresses, and the ladies’ everyday attire, are meticulously authentic, with corsets underneath and seemingly hundreds of buttons holding the fitted garments closed tight. Their braided updos, also period-accurate, must have taken hours each day.
As McBurney continues his recovery, he gets closer to Edwina and Ms. Farnsworth, and even a few of the girls. But then he makes a move that alienates nearly all of them.
Clint Eastwood played the handsome soldier in the 1971 film, and flashbacks show that he’s a shifty guy from the start. Farrell’s character, though, is less developed. He’s presented as decent and sincere, so his disruptive choices seem to come out of nowhere.
Ms. Farnsworth’s ultimate response also seems excessive, given the way her character unfolds and her responsibility to her students.
Nevertheless, Coppola creates a portrait of the repressed, isolated lives of women and girls during wartime — even if the only overt signs of battle here are faraway explosions and the occasional cavalry coming by. And unlike in the 1971 film, Coppola’s characters have agency, even as they’re affected by a man in their midst.
The performances are engrossing, particularly Kidman’s: She disappears into the distant primness of Ms. Farnsworth. The costumes are exquisite; the Southern setting, atmospheric.
But without a clear understanding of what motivates the key characters, it’s hard to know just what this woman-centered retelling is really saying.