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Remakes have a terrible reputation in Hollywood (a reputation admittedly earned through decades of studio mistakes), but Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled is a great example of how to properly bring back a previously adapted story. Rather than just being a straight re-do of something we've seen before, it makes more sense to use remakes as a means of exploring angles and perceptions that were ignored the previous time around. That's exactly what Coppola has built with her latest film -- and while it's an imperfect product, it is also a well-told tale anchored by a handful of terrific performances.
The Beguiled, based on the book "A Painted Devil" by author Thomas P. Cullinan, was previously made into a movie by director Don Siegel with star Clint Eastwood back in 1971 -- and the big difference with Sofia Coppola's version is that it tells the story predominantly from the perspective of its primarily female ensemble. Set in Virginia during the middle of the American Civil War, the film centers on a seminary for young girls, which has been kept as a residence for the school's headmistress (Nicole Kidman), teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and students (Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard, and Addison Riecke) as the fighting continues.
The on-going war creates enough stress and problems as it is, but things become seriously compounded when young Amy (Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell) while she is out picking mushrooms for dinner. She winds up rescuing the man, who identifies himself as Corporal John McBurney, and while Miss Martha (Kidman) permits him to stay in the seminary's music room until he is healed, all of the women are incredibly wary about having a Yankee in the house. Slowly but surely John winds up ingratiating himself with the girls and trying to make them comfortable with him -- but it also has the effect of ramping up an atmosphere of sexual tension, which winds up boiling over in horrific fashion.
Sofia Coppola successfully uses this story to carve out some fantastic character dynamics and atmosphere - while handling a narrative that never quite delivers enough twists and turns. The Beguiled leans heavily on the mess of connections that exist between John and Miss Martha, the chaste schoolteacher Edwina (Dunst), and the eldest student, Alicia (Fanning), but leans primarily on internalized conflict rather than following a Hitchcock-esque plot that radically changes your perception on what's really happening from scene to scene. As such, coming at this movie with expectations of a bit more story and intrigue may be met with disappointment -- even while being treated to some really fantastic character work.
To that end, The Beguiled winds up being a vehicle for some fantastic performers delivering some of the best work we've seen from them in years. It's a project that requires a certain amount of chemistry to exist between every single character, and the marvelous cast delivers through and through. Colin Farrell is certainly given a great deal of heavy lifting, as John has a different kind of relationship with each of the women in the household, but each dynamic is as engaging as the last, and it's what drives the stakes way up as the movie dives into its violent and thrilling third act.
Much like Sofia Coppola's last period piece, Marie Antoinette, the setting of The Beguiled presented opportunity for a special feel -- and the film is truly stunning. It leans into the Southern Gothic motif with gorgeous shadow and natural light-fueled cinematography, but really, every aesthetic choice feels delicate and tactful -- from the incredible estate where the bulk of the story unfolds, to the striking Civil War-era dresses worn by the women during supper. If the phrase "hauntingly beautiful" was ever appropriate anywhere, this is the place.
Those interested in The Beguiled would do themselves a favor avoiding the movie's theatrical trailer -- which is both spoiler-filled and a weird manipulation of the overall tone -- and go into the film with greater expectation of Civil War drama than psychosexual thriller (though it certainly is that in parts). That said, it's a beautiful piece of work, a tremendous actor showcase, and a fine example of how to rework a previously adapted story.