Y o u’d be forgiven if you mistook the title of Sofia Coppola’s new movie, “The Beguiled,” for “The Becalmed.” The original 1971 version of the film, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, was a work of Civil War-era pulp fiction, but Coppola’s remake seems gauzy and discreet, given less to the shock cut than the graceful dissolve. Yet there’s steel under the film’s lace, and a clarity that cuts through the Southern mist. Dismiss a woman’s “gentle touch” at your peril.
Such, too, is the lesson Corporal John McBurney learns as “The Beguiled” rolls quietly and unrelentingly on. Based (as was the 1971 film) on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, it opens with the wounded Union fighter — an Irish immigrant and a replacement soldier for a rich man’s son — discovered on the grounds of Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies by a young mushroom-picking student, Amy (Oona Laurence). We’re in Virginia, 1864, and the climactic battles of the Civil War are being fought nearby. Cannons boom in the far distance like repressed thoughts.
The wounded man is brought back to the school and nursed to health by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), her second-in-command, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and the few students who haven’t fled the war. It’s a classic fox-in-the-henhouse setup, one that the Eastwood movie mined for male paranoia but that Coppola lets unfold at a naturalistic pace. She’s interested in the interplay among the giggling girls — old soul Amy, sensible Marie (Addison Riecke), impressionable Jane (Angourie Rice), and Alicia (Elle Fanning), an older mean girl with a body she hasn’t figured out yet.
“The Beguiled” is especially drawn to the tensions between the stern headmistress and her underling Edwina, still young but an old maid as far as 1864 is concerned. The soldier picks up on their discontents, their unspoken rivalry, and exploits them, praising Edwina’s unadorned beauty and flattering Martha’s worldly intelligence. Or is he sincerely responding to them as people?
You know the answer as well as I do, but Coppola artfully keeps us guessing, balancing a sympathetic performance from Farrell with richly observed nuances of the lives of cloistered women. In the 1971 film, the man may have been a cheat but the women were crazy harpies — everyone had an ax to grind and the suspense came from wondering if and when that was ever going to get literal.
By contrast, this “Beguiled” is a consciously (and cleverly) female response to a story that has always fed on male anxieties of powerlessness, the soldier with a wounded leg daring to play with women’s hearts and lusts. If anything, the fear is on the other foot, especially in the scenes in which McBurney rages at his captors with animal fury. Then we feel a sisterly drawing in, a closing of ranks, and a decision is made out of desperate righteousness that is not a little self-righteous on Miss Martha’s part.
It has been a good year for Nicole Kidman, with her work in TV’s “Big Little Lies” and four films (including this one) at May’s Cannes Film Festival. She has become a commanding screen presence while seeming to become more gentle and intuitive; this movie takes its rhythms from hers. I would argue that Dunst is miscast, that it’s hard to see the submissiveness in such a forceful personality. Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe an actress who has worked so well with this director before (in 1999’s “The Virgin Suicides” and 2006’s “Marie Antoinette”) couldn’t and shouldn’t have resisted the chance.
Coppola took home the award for best director at Cannes this year — the second woman ever to win and the first in 56 years — and her craft is evident in the images of “The Beguiled,” some of which resemble 19th-century engravings sprung to life. (The cinematographer is Philippe Le Sourd.)
For all its smarts, however,the film feels the slightest bit impersonal and risk-free. Coppola has been faulted in various quarters for dropping a female slave from her remake, among other changes (the character was in both the novel and the Eastwood version), and her response has been, more or less, that a slave in a movie not explicitly about slavery would have thrown off the balance.
The criticism’s fair. Any Civil War movie that doesn’t acknowledge slavery — to the point of intentionally avoiding the subject — is taking the easy way out. “The Beguiled” is a solid and at times eerily subversive piece of work, but it shows that there may be limits to Sofia Coppola’s ambition and her nerve.
★ ★ ★
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan. Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 91 minutes. R (some sexuality).