PLOT During the Civil War, a Southern girls’ school shelters a wounded Yankee soldier.
CAST Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst
RATED R (sexuality and some violence)
PLAYING AT AMC Lincoln Square and Angelika Film Center in Manhattan; opens locally June 30.
BOTTOM LINE Moody and compelling, with fine performances all around.
“The Beguiled,” Sofia Coppola’s art-house chiller set in an all-girls’ boarding school, arrives just a few weeks after the blockbuster “Wonder Woman.” Normally, these two releases wouldn’t invite comparison, but both are notably driven by female directors and stars. The question is, which one — the character-driven drama that earned Coppola a history-making best-director prize at Cannes, or the big-budget superhero movie — paints a more relevant picture of women?
Here are two clues: “The Beguiled” takes place in rural Virginia during the Civil War, and its genre is the Southern Gothic. One day at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies — Nicole Kidman plays its tightly corseted matriarch, Martha — a young pupil discovers a wounded enemy soldier in the woods. He is Cpl. John McBurney (a silky Colin Farrell), and although he’s lost a lot of blood, he hasn’t lost his masculine charm. “I’m grateful to be your prisoner,” he purrs after the women carry him home.
Almost instantly, the seminary turns into a cauldron of sexual desire, as just about every female from French teacher Edwina (an excellent Kirsten Dunst) to little Amy (Oona Laurence) sets her sights on the man. Miss Martha puts up a chilly front, but even she isn’t immune to McBurney’s allure. As for Alicia, a sexually aggressive teen played by Elle Fanning (her heat practically radiates from the screen), the corporal will be sorry they ever met.
“The Beguiled” is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel, following an off-kilter 1971 version starring Clint Eastwood (and directed by his “Dirty Harry” collaborator Don Siegel). Coppola’s movie is undeniably superior, much more even in tone and blessed with a terrific cast. Still, why make it now? Its portrayal of Southern belles as sinister succubi feels oddly retrograde, as does Coppola’s complete omission of the slave Hallie, whose fierce dignity gave the original film a jolt of realism.
It’s possible that Coppola doesn’t want to make any statements about gender politics here; maybe she was simply drawn to the material. Judged on its merits, “The Beguiled” is a fine film. If you want to see a movie that reflects what women are doing and achieving now, though, you’ll have to go to the multiplex for that.
Where the girls are
“The Beguiled” takes place at a Civil War-era Southern boarding school, where the girls are anything but bored after the arrival of a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). Here are four more classy movies set at a girls’ school.
THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939) Shirley Temple had one of her biggest hits with this riches-to-rags tale in which she played a soldier’s daughter who goes from teacher’s pet to scullery maid at her school after being told her father was killed in the Boer War.
THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961) Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine starred as teachers whose lives are destroyed when a student spreads a lie that they are lovers. “These Three,” the 1936 version of Lillian Hellman’s drama, centered around a heterosexual love triangle.
THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966) There was plenty of nunsense, most of it caused by troublesome Hayley Mills, in this comedy set at a Catholic girls school run by a stern Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell).
THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) Maggie Smith won a well-deserved Oscar as a Scottish teacher whose romanticized worldviews have a disastrous influence on her students.
— Daniel Bubbeo