Who is the beguiled and who the beguiler in Sofia Coppola’s gauzy, vaguely sinister Civil War melodrama: Is it Colin Farrell’s Cpl. John McBurney, a mercenary Union soldier fresh off the boat from Dublin? Or the girlish Southern shut-ins who find him bleeding out in the Virginia woods, his leg riddled with buckshot, and reluctantly take him in?
While real cannons rumble somewhere in the distance, his arrival registers as its own kind of bomb — upending the genteel daily routines of Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, an isolated sanctum of femininity guarded from within and without by its vigilant headmistress (Nicole Kidman). John is roguishly handsome and works hard to charm his accidental hostesses, but the house’s fraught tinderbox of enforced decorum and feverish female sexuality hardly needs a match to catch fire. Every one of them — from Elle Fanning’s scheming teenage coquette to Kirsten Dunst’s wary, sad-eyed tutor — burns with a longing for the outside world that almost visibly strains their corset strings. And he is not averse to tugging on more than one of them.
Anyone who’s seen the gleefully overheated 1971 original starring Clint Eastwood, or ever read something somewhere about foxes and henhouses, may be sure they know where all this is headed. But Coppola, who took home the Best Director prize for the movie last month at Cannes (only the second woman in the festival’s 70-year history to do so), has her own narrative hand to play, and she does it with a coolness that both obscures and inverts the most obvious interpretations of her characters’ choices. As an artist, she’s a faultless aesthete and a consistent master of stillness; the most indelible moments in films like The Virgin Suicides and Somewhere often happened in the silence between the lines. And nearly every shot here is a visual symphony, all milky sunbeams shot through Spanish moss and white muslin flickering in candlelight. But for all that lavish calibration, its beauty is a little remote, too — so beguiled by style that it forgets, or simply declines, to make us feel too much. B+