Director Don Siegel created in “The Beguiled,” back in 1971, an emotional tension as thick and muggy as the air in summer. The only thing more stifling and heated in this story, set during the Civil War ,was the sexual tension created by a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood) being given sanctuary at a girls boarding school. The film mixed passion and betrayal in such dark quantities that at times it played more like a psychological thriller or horror movie.
Now director Sophia Coppola has created her own vision of “The Beguiled.” Her take follows the same plot. The difference is that Coppola fails to create any of the tension that made the original so haunting. Coppola’s version looks more like a junior college production.
Both start the same way. John McBurney (Farrell) is discovered in the woods by a student looking for mushrooms. The child’s passion for bringing home wounded animals goes into overdrive when she decides to help the injured soldier.
Once back at the school, McBurney begins to cast a spell on the teachers and students, sparked by a mix of curiosity and sexual energy. His relationship with the females begins to create jealous feelings, especially his interest in Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), a school teacher who dreams of leaving the war-torn world.
In the original, these relationships were presented in a raw way. Coppola’s approach is lumbering and emotionally flat.
Farrell gives a strong performance, going from smooth-talking gentleman to crazed captor, and he makes each twist and turn interesting. Dunst does a passable job as the object of McBurney’s attention. Nicole Kidman, as the school’s leader, never settles on a way to play the role, drifting between savior and sinner as if sleepwalking through the tale. Elle Fanning, playing a teen who has a sexual awakening at supersonic speed, stumbles through the film. The scene where she slips into McBurney’s room to steal a kiss has all the passion of a girl kissing her pillow good night.
The best thing Coppola has going for her is that the original film was released 46 years ago, so most moviegoers won’t have seen it. This version of “The Beguiled” will leave you baffled, bewildered and befuddled.
Rated R for sexuality, war violence. 1:36. Kentucky.