Although it unfolds in and around a Virginia boarding school in 1864, a year before the end of the Civil War, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" has some of the spooky, suggestive magic of a fairy tale.
The opening shot could be of an ancient grove at the witching hour, the chatter of cicadas merging with the sound of a young girl humming as she strolls past trees draped in mist and moss. Kneeling to pick a few mushrooms for supper, young Amy (Oona Laurence) is startled to find a man seated at the base of an oak barely a few feet away, as if he had materialized out of thin air.
The man is John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish mercenary who has deserted his post in the Union army after a severe leg injury. Frightened but intrigued, Amy helps the man to his feet and guides him to the gates of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, where she and four other students have been waiting out the war with French lessons and needlepoint under the watchful eye of their headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), and their teacher, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst).
Miss Martha is initially scandalized by the presence of a Yankee on the premises. But rather than turning him over to the Confederate troops who occasionally march past their gates, she is moved by some impulse — call it Southern hospitality, Christian compassion or something less pure of heart — to nurse this handsome stranger back to health. The other young women meekly but excitedly concur, by which point it's clear that the eerie supernatural portents seeded at the outset have already taken root.
Adapted by Coppola from Thomas Cullinan's 1966 Southern gothic novel, "The Beguiled" will soon weave its own hushed, intoxicating spell, one that recently seduced the Cannes Film Festival jury into giving Coppola a directing prize (only the second time in the festival's 70-year history that a woman has received that honor). The precision of her technique is plain to see in the shadowy spareness of the plantation setting, the delicate cut of the women's lacy white dresses and, above all, the flickering candlelight in the movie's ravishing nighttime images, shot on richly muted 35-millimeter film by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd.
But there is more to Coppola's moody sorcery than an eye for fine embroidery and antebellum real estate. Films as unique and vivid as "Lost in Translation," "Marie Antoinette" and "Somewhere" have established the director as a quietly meticulous observer of individuals in enclosed environments, and here she once more displays uncanny patience and intuition, letting the story rise and fall on the subtlest shifts in emotional temperature.
McBurney, laid up with a bad leg but otherwise fully functioning lower-body appendages, is properly beguiled by the lovely ladies who keep popping in and out of his room. What soldier in his position would not be? But Coppola is altogether more interested in how the women register their own beguilement, and also how McBurney, with more instinct than calculation, manipulates their sympathies and awakens their repressed desires.
There is the childish curiosity of Amy and Marie (the adorable Addison Riecke), as well as the unbridled teenage lust of Alicia (Elle Fanning). Alicia's single-minded pursuit of McBurney stands in stark contrast to the mantle of sadness and diffidence that clings to Edwina, whom Dunst, Coppola's most reliable muse, plays with piercing vulnerability. Not to be counted out is Miss Martha, whose stern sense of propriety is undergirded with glimmers of warmth and mischief in Kidman's delicious performance. The movie's most memorable scene finds her bathing McBurney as he sleeps, her scrubbing motions becoming vaguer and more hesitant the further south she goes.
The dueling impulses at play in that moment — the way Coppola teasingly acknowledges the humor of the situation, even as she treats the reality of female desire with complete seriousness — are a testament to her control in a story that might have gone the way of either "The Bacchae" or a Monty Python sketch. No virgins get spanked in "The Beguiled," but Coppola and her actors aren't afraid to nudge their story gently and occasionally in the direction of camp, particularly in a dinner scene in which each girl, trying to impress McBurney, boasts about her contribution to that evening's dessert. "Hope you like apple pie!" winks Alicia. (He does.)
On the surface, "The Beguiled" seems to follow more or less the same narrative trajectory as Don Siegel's enjoyably pulpy 1971 adaptation of the same title, which starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in the McBurney and Miss Martha roles. Once again an overgrown Southern hothouse becomes the setting for a violent parable about the dark side of desire, in which a man fancies himself a fox but soon learns he's landed in the wrong henhouse.
Coppola's film — not a remake of Siegel's film so much as a repositioning of the original text — makes McBurney a more sympathetic figure (the tender-eyed Farrell has little of Eastwood's macho snarl) even as it quietly grants the women the moral high ground. The fascination and at times the frustration of her achievement is that she has drained away some of the story's juiciest, most suspenseful elements: a spot of incest, a violent ambush and a grisly surgical operation that is here reduced to a memorable line I won't spoil.
There is compromise in all this narrative subtraction, but there is also purpose. Scrupulous behavioral observer that she is, Coppola is trying to isolate her emotional and psychological variables, to capture the tricky, elusive interplay of heterosexual longing in close quarters. But her most troubling decision, to judge by the criticisms that have arisen in recent days, is the excision of a character: Hallie, a slave girl who figures significantly in both Cullinan's novel and Siegel's movie.
The subjects of cultural erasure and artistic responsibility can be grist for nuanced consideration and cheap outrage alike. Coppola, as it happens, has been no stranger to criticism of every kind, often directed at her alleged lack of ambition, vision and political rage: Her luminous and moving "Marie Antoinette" was pilloried in many quarters for not being a sufficiently damning treatise on class warfare. That charge now finds an echo in the bizarre logic that "The Beguiled" is blind to the realities of American slavery, simply by choosing to be a deftly crafted miniature rather than a sweeping panorama.
Coppola's film might well have been more compelling had she left that thread of Cullinan's story intact. (Mae Mercer's superb performance as Hallie in the 1971 film suggests as much.) But what others will decry as a failure of sensitivity on her part is better understood, I think, as an assertion of humility, rooted in a deeper knowledge of her own limitations than her critics realize. After seeing "The Beguiled," you may well claim that Coppola misses the bigger picture, though it might be fairer to say that she sees the beauty in the smaller one.
MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles