“The Beguiled” has a throwback feel that goes beyond its debt to the creepy 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood. Writer-director Sofia Coppola has produced a small-scale movie that exalts old-fashioned movie-making qualities, yielding a refreshingly understated alternative to a sea of summer blockbusters.
The movie’s sexual politics actually feel a trifle dated, but the strong cast compensates that, with Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell all delivering topnotch work. For all that, this is still the kind of hard-to-market attraction that won’t lose much being watched on cable, which is the sizable challenge facing such projects when it comes to seducing filmgoers into forking over their time and money.
Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel, the Southern-fried plot is a model of simplicity, with the action transpiring almost entirely within the confines of a single dwelling. It’s 1864 in Virginia, where the occupants of a small girls seminary are struggling their way through the waning stages of the Civil War.
One of the students stumbles across a Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Farrell), who has been seriously wounded. After some debate, the headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) and her one employee, Edwina (Dunst), decide to take him in, with his male presence and manipulative charms bringing a sense of lurking tumult and furtive lust into this otherwise utterly proper abode.
McBurney quickly grasps that staying within the house is vital to his survival, or at least, cushier than landing in a Confederate prison. So he begins a flirtation with Edwina, a prim schoolmarm type whose aspirations and hunger for more from life are hinted at in the way she responds to his overtures.
The girls are agitated to varying degrees by having a man in their midst, including the oldest among them, a teen (Elle Fanning) who may be a little closer to womanhood than her stewards realize.
Using gauzy light and virtually no music, Coppola has essentially stripped the project to its core, dispensing with the earlier version’s flashbacks of the soldier at war and its racial component, as Miss Martha notes early on that the slaves have run away.
“The Beguiled” nevertheless stokes low-key suspense – calling it a thriller is almost false advertising – as Coppola (who garnered the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival) leaves the audience feeling as vaguely unsettled as the characters. Her cast responds by conveying quite a lot with very little, including Farrell, who has wisely been allowed to use his native accent.
As for Kidman and Dunst, it’s worth noting that both have earned recent praise for limited TV series (“Big Little Lies” and season two of “Fargo,” respectively), offering a reminder of how television has supplanted film in creating these sorts of meaty roles for actresses.
If those big-screen opportunities have become relatively few and far between these days, like everyone else in “The Beguiled,” its stars have made the most of them.
“The Beguiled” opens in limited release on June 23. It’s rated R.