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Sofia Coppola brings fresh, poetic perspective to ‘Beguiled’

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Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst appear in Sofia Coppola’s remake of “The Beguiled.” (Courtesy Focus Features)
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Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is a surprising remake, based on a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, and on a 1966 Southern Gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan.

The excellent original is practically a horror film, bathed in sinister shadows and delving into gruesome moments of human depravity.

Though Coppola’s version is strikingly different, more ethereal, the story is roughly the same. During the Civil War, at an all-girls school in the deep South, a small staff continues to run things for a student body of four girls.

While collecting mushrooms in the woods, the youngest girl stumbles across a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney. She leads him back to the school, where the headmistress nurses him to health.

From there, “The Beguiled” turns into a kind of dark, psychological battle of the sexes.

Siegel and Eastwood’s film was, by default, told from a male point of view. The women in that film were virtually defined and locked down by their sexuality (or lack thereof). Coppola’s characters are far more nuanced.

The headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t have flashbacks or dream sequences indicating dark desires. Kidman’s strong performance is more subtly suggestive.

Teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) is more restless than her naïve counterpart. And the young flirt Alicia (Elle Fanning) is not a predator; she’s merely testing her newfound sexuality.

Coppola excised a troubling black slave character, Hallie.

Taking over the Eastwood role — no small feat — Colin Farrell is excellent, less focused on sheer thuggish masculinity and more on charm and sly manipulation, using his eyes and voice.

But more than simply broadening the characters, Coppola carefully and poetically paints the movie’s world as well. The woodsy grounds around the school create an exquisite, commanding palette.

Singing, the crunching of leaves, the blowing of a breeze, and the distant boom of gunfire — as well as daylight filtered through trees and windows — provide a comfortable, yet confined, space.

With her striking approach, Coppola arrives at a primal, organic place; it’s no mistake that things of the earth, a turtle and mushrooms, represent major turning points.

The only thing not real here is the characters’ attempt to keep up a civilized facade within this world. Pinned up in their period costumes, or laid up in bed, they appear to be polite, but secret longings rule.

Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2010 update of “True Grit,” Coppola’s “The Beguiled” is that rare remake that has reason, adding a fresh artistic take and bringing an old story back to life.

REVIEW
The Beguiled
Three and a half stars
Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 34 minutes

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