Sofia Coppola has run out of ideas. Whatever passion for the material that led her to decide to remake “The Beguiled,” which was first a book, then a Clint Eastwood film, is not evident in the finished product.
The story of a wounded Union deserter secretly convalescing in a mansion full of women of assorted ages and proclivities would seem potentially interesting to the woman who directed “The Virgin Suicides.” But the potential falls really short in this inexplicably inert bit of period nonsense.
Filmed in Louisiana, the setting is sun-dappled and misty, ripe for burying secrets and hidden passions. Deep into the Civil War, six girls and women live tremulously in a white mansion, which was their school before the war broke out. Now almost everyone is gone, but the steely headmistress (Nicole Kidman) kept the school open for the students, who were safer left there.
The school functions as a sanctuary for these young girls and a teacher (Kirsten Dunst). They persist in their lessons, determined to survive with a cow for food and a revolver for protection. There are references to all sorts of lost and dead men, and the women seem resigned, performing endless chores and mustering on, like Scarlett O’Hara, minus the, well, pretty much everything that makes Scarlett O’Hara so much fun.
Like the sisters in “The Virgin Suicides,” these cloistered females form a de facto matriarchal society, but while the former inspired Coppola to create a visual world of teenage girlhood that was unforgettably claustrophobic and weirdly beautiful, all the satin ribbons, crinoline and candle smoke come to nothing in “The Beguiled.” It feels entirely lacking in a point of view.
Into the girls’ grim lives tumbles wounded hunk Colin Farrell, begging for aid in his Irish brogue and rocking enviable bedhead. While the women could turn him in immediately to the nearby Southern forces, they quickly justify keeping him in the music room until he is healed. Miss Martha (Kidman) keeps a close eye on him, bathing him and cleaning his wound, but mostly bathing him. The girls, some innocent and daughterly, others — namely the lusty teen portrayed by Elle Fanning — with more defined goals, skitter in the hallway.
Farrell perfectly calibrates his character to manipulate each female. He offers platitudes about battle to the prim Miss Martha, and gently declares his love to the miserably downtrodden Miss Edwina (Dunst). The charming Farrell is quite convincing. No wonder the girls all pray aloud for him every night.
Kidman makes the most of her part, and sometimes her motives seem as unknowable as those of the soldier, but every time things seem to be ramping up to a good story, the film remains flat. For all its beautiful detail and titillating plot, it is less than the sum of its parts. There is so much potential, but neither the narrative nor even the look of the film ever pays off. It is not “languid,” it is “boring”; it is not “mysterious,” it is “pointless.” These Southern belles might seem steamed up, but “The Beguiled” is underbaked.
Perhaps Coppola is hopelessly contemporary and needs to leave the past, like her disastrous “Marie Antoinette,” in the past. Her successes, such as “Lost in Translation” and “The Virgin Suicides,” are significant, and it’s hard to say whether the good films or the bad films are the anomaly. “The Beguiled” is a mark in the latter column, and there’s no telling what kind of film she will saunter out and make next time.
“The Beguiled” is currently available to rent.