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Sofia Coppola's 'The Beguiled': An uncivil war between the sexes

Gary Thompson, MOVIE CRITIC

Updated: Tuesday, June 27, 2017, 6:56 PM

Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell in a scene from “The Beguiled.”

As Civil War reenactor gigs go, Colin Farrell has what appears to be a pretty good one in The Beguiled.

He plays Cpl. John McBurney, an Irish immigrant fighting (not wholeheartedly) for the Union when he’s wounded in the Virginia wilderness and carted off to a house full of lonely Southern belles, whom he commences to ringing, one by one.

The ladies debate whether to turn him over to Confederate authorities, but they are more intrigued than alarmed, and anti-Yankee sentiment quickly gives way to subtle competition among the women for his attention.

Director Sofia Coppola adapts the story from a novel by Thomas Cullinan, first made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood back in 1971, which the actor sandwiched between Kelly’s Heroes and Dirty Harry.

It is a weird and lurid entry in the Eastwood canon. The immobilized actor evaluates a selection of women with his wolfish smirk – his lips had yet to form the words “make my day,” but he’s thinking it.

Farrell actually makes more sense in the role, at least as Cullinan envisioned it. He plays McBurney with a twinkle and shows the corporal as a man who knows how to pour on the Irish charm — first to ensure his survival, then as a means to secure a long-term, post-war deal.

A house full of desperately single women, one unscrupulous man – if McBurney were smart, he’d get back to his unit, because Bull Run would actually be less dangerous. We sense things could go badly for him if he’s not careful, and he isn’t.

Head of the household Martha (Nicole Kidman) is in charge of his care, feeds him, shields him from Confederate officers, and gives him a rather intimate sponge bath, and though the corporal is appreciative, he flirts flagrantly with resident spinster Edwina (Kristen Dunst) and extends his charm offensive to progressively younger women (Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice).

Dunst is playing it straight here, but there is enough arch in Kidman’s eyebrow to signal that Coppola is having fun around the edges of this Southern gothic, with its formal compositions and deliberate pacing (as usual, a little too deliberate for my taste).

She has us view this pageant of competition through the eyes of the women — as is the case in the Cullinan novel (now out of print). Missing, though, is a woman present in the novel and in the Eastwood movie — a slave named Hallie (Mae Mercer in the Eastwood film) who works in the house and is owned by Martha.

Coppola said she eliminated the character because she didn’t want to raise a complex issue in the context of such a compact story (the movie is just 90 minutes). That’s understandable, but it’s also convenient, and aids her goal of making the women and their situation more sympathetic.

She wants us squarely on their side when the pretense of Southern hospitality gives way to something more sinister — a big sit-down meal with McBurney savoring his favorite dish, and Martha hers.

MOVIE REVIEW

The Beguiled

Directed by Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice. Distributed by Focus Features.

Running time: 94 minutes

Parent's guide: R (some sexuality)

Playing at: Ritz Five, Bryn Mawr Film Institute and area theaters

Gary Thompson, MOVIE CRITIC

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