When a shirtless Clint Eastwood starred in The Beguiled in 1971 – he played a wounded Yankee soldier who finds refuge from the Civil War on the grounds of a Southern girls school – he was the boss rooster in a henhouse.
That was then. Now writer-director Sofia Coppola has reshaped that film, based on the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan, into a Southern Gothic that simmers with violent undercurrents and dark, subversive wit. Laughs? You bet, though a few of them will stick in your throat.
Coppola, who last month won the directing prize at Cannes, replaces the male gaze in the Eastwood film, feverishly directed by Don Siegel, with a potent female perspective. These wonder women, led by Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, may lack super powers, but their agency for themselves is a match for any man.
The "he" among the seven "she's" is Corp. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish charmer found in the woods by Amy (Oona Laurence), a student who helps him limp to her Virginia school. Once he's recuperated somewhat and settled in, he tries to seize control of the household – naturally, with benefits. Of course, the ladies have another agenda, one that Coppola builds with sly mischief and mounting suspense. Headmistress Martha (a splendid Kidman) digs the iron out his leg and provides a sponge bath that doesn't miss a spot. Edwina (Dunst), a teacher at the school, has more romantic designs. And the impulsive teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), just wants to kiss a man – on her terms
Coppola, whose work includes The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, The Bling Ring and Lost in Translation (which made her only the third women in history to be Oscar nominated as Best Director) is at the top of her game here, crafting a vibrant melodrama that both plays to her strengths and brings new colors to her cinematic palette. The filmmaker and her gifted cinematographer Phillippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) create a sultry atmosphere of lacy beauty curdled by blood lust and the sound of battle off in the distance. But, oh, the war inside. Kidman and Farrell engage in a mesmerizing duel of wits. But it's Dunst, in a performance of aching beauty and restraint, who finds the film's bruised heart. Coppola is a virtuoso of image and sound. but don't mistake her delicate touch for weakness. The Beguiled is a hothouse flower of startling power and intimacy. You can't shake it.