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The Beguiled explores repression and revenge during wartime

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Colin Farrell is surrounded by women in The Beguiled.
Photo: Focus Features / Courtesy

Three and a half stars

The Beguiled Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.

When Don Siegel adapted Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Beguiled in 1971, he made it into a lurid, pulpy B-movie, starring Clint Eastwood as a sleazy Union soldier who takes advantage of the hospitality of a Southern all-girls school during the Civil War. Sofia Coppola’s version is more restrained, removing many of the exploitation elements that Siegel focused on, and softening the main character of Cpl. John McBurney (here played by Colin Farrell). Coppola is more interested in the perspectives of the women at the school, and how the unexpected presence of this wounded man, an enemy soldier, upends their ordered existence.

The war remains a distant threat, even as soldiers regularly pass by the secluded Farnsworth Seminary. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), young teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) and five students are the only people left at the school, still going through lessons in French and table manners even as the Southern way of life seems to be crumbling around them. They take in the wounded McBurney out of a sense of Christian charity (so they say), but the presence of a handsome man in a world where nearly all of the men are dying on the battlefield has an intoxicating effect on the women, from the practical Martha to the lonely Edwina to the blossoming student Alicia (Elle Fanning).

As she has done in movies like The Virgin Suicides and The Bling Ring, Coppola observes the self-destructive tendencies of young (or just immature) women without judgment or titillation, letting her top-notch cast convey the conflicting emotions of repressed, haunted people who’ve been more or less cast aside by society. Unlike Eastwood, whose McBurney was a raging lust monster, Farrell is mostly subdued, until he finally snaps near the end of the movie. It’s the women who seem unmoored, and the entire female cast, including up-and-coming young actresses Angourie Rice and Oona Laurence, is fantastic. The Farnsworth Seminary at first appears to be an oasis from the horrors of war, but Coppola reveals it as something more like purgatory, with just one insidious temptation needed for its fragile tranquility to fall apart.

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