Review 'The Beguiled': In Sofia Coppola's Movie, Female Sexuality Collides With Notions of Gentility

Elle Fanning stars as Alicia in Focus Features’ atmospheric thriller written for the screen and directed by Sofia Coppola. Ben Rothstein/Focus Features

From the first shots of mist drifting past trees dripping with Spanish moss, Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled moves with a languid, hypnotic menace. Most gothic melodramas seem to take place in a hothouse. The film takes its character and pace from the humid Southern air that slows everything and reduces the humans trapped inside to the helpless conviction that the relief they're waiting for will never arrive.

And yet, at 93 minutes, this streamlined version, based both on Thomas Cullinan's 1965 novel and Don Siegel's 1971 film, is over before you know it, leaving you a little dazed, as if you'd woken abruptly from under a spell. Set in a Southern girls' boarding school in 1864 as the Confederacy realizes it's going to lose, the story is about the sexual tensions that arise when a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) is discovered and taken in to recuperate. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) is wary of the newcomer, as both a man and a Yank, but finds herself drawn to him, as do both a younger teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and a precocious student, Alicia (Elle Fanning, exuding the inchoate lyricism that makes her a wonder to watch). You wait for the tensions—male-female, North-South, innocence-experience, lust-love—to explode. And they do, but the explosions hit you on the rebound, like the distant cannon fire that is one of this often nearly-silent movie's audio accompaniments.

Siegel's version was lurid but calculatedly so, not out of any emotional commitment to the material. And with a smirking Clint Eastwood as the soldier, the story—which Cullinan told entirely from the points of view of the women—became a simpleminded demonstration of how devious women are.

As the soldier in Coppola's movie, Farrell, a too often underrated actor, has a dangerous and seductive charm: You couldn't blame anyone for being taken in. Coppola sees the black humor and the eeriness of the story's premise. Where Siegel played an amputation scene for over-the-top gruesomeness, Coppola does something both subtler and far more unsettling, cutting from the preparation for the operation to a burial service for the severed limb. As shot by Philippe Le Sourd, the film looks like an unholy collaboration between John Singer Sargent and Edvard Munch, a faded mansion on its way to becoming a sickroom.

Coppola gets at thorny and complex ideas about how expectations of female gentility poison female sexuality and cause these women to experience desire as sickness. She's aided by Kidman, whose performance creates a kind and potentially loving woman out of a character who, in both the original novel and the Siegel film, was all starchy repression. And Dunst, as a youngish woman at the age when she is beginning to be viewed as an old maid, is touching and yet startling. It's as if you can see her dimpled, youthful beauty withering before you for simple want of love.

The talk in Hollywood now is how the success of Wonder Woman , directed by Patty Jenkins, means female filmmakers have a chance to reap the rewards of popular blockbusters. What's not being asked is what difference a female presence will make for the movies if the result is still the clunky (though, in the case of Wonder Woman , well-intentioned) superhero flicks male directors are already making. No director gets to show wit or invention or personality when they're working with a quarter-billion of studio money. Meanwhile, Coppola made The Beguiled on a budget of about $10 million and was given a shooting schedule of just six weeks. It doesn't matter if there's a queen or a king at the top of the box office when our best filmmakers still have to go begging for resources.

The Beguiled is released on June 23.