By Richard von Busack
In 1864, a wounded Union deserter becomes a fox in a henhouse. In both versions of The Beguiled (1971/2017) Corporal McBurney manipulates the Confederate ladies of a small finishing school. Is it Christian love or devilish lust that makes the half-dozen ladies conceal the enemy soldier from the patrolling Confederate troops? It’s unclear who the title refers to, unless everyone here is beguiled, and a self-beguiler.
In the thin, pretty-pretty Sofia Coppola redo, McBurney (Colin Farrell) tries to flirt the ladies into submission … for a time, the Irish accent, the melting glances and the outrageous compliments work. He’s always watching, seeing how his hostesses are taking his show of gentlemanly behavior. The easiest pickings would seem to be Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, playing the Elizabeth Hartman old-maid part), but she’s someone who can match McBurney’s almost periscopic side-eye: She’s not as weak as she looks.
Coppola’s Cannes-honored remake has a shorter running time than the Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood original, and yet that original seemed like a speedier pulp version of D.H. Lawrence, with Geraldine Page excelling as the head witch in charge. Jo Ann Harris, a torrid-eyed wanton, is replaced by a more inwardly-neurotic Elle Fanning. Nicole Kidman replaces Page.
If the first Beguiled was a hothouse, this is more of a boutique, uncommitted to horror, effective melodrama or social comedy. This Beguiled has no dirt under its fingernails. Watching this Virgin “Homicides” of Coppola, it’s unclear whether the movie is a protest against the old-time women’s world of caged seclusion, or a celebration of those good old days when a lady sat, looked elegant and waited for stuff to be brought to her.