Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” harks back to the filmmaker’s previous movies, as a dreamy psychological study that unfolds in an insular, largely female world. Within a vivid historical and cultural environment — in this case, Civil War-era Virginia — a group of women enter into a tightly wound emotional compact, their mutual sympathies, supports and sense of competition eventually finding release in transgressive acts of selfannihilation or criminal enterprise. In this deliciously gussied-up slab of Southern Gothic horror, Coppola’s protagonists are more socially subversive than ever, lashing out in acts of grimly controlled violence and, finally, murder.
“The Virgins’ Homicide,” anyone?
Coppola gets things off to a suitably moody start as “The Beguiled” opens, with a lovely piece of 1970s-esque lens flare and images of evocatively draped Spanish moss. A little girl is humming a hymn while picking mushrooms in the woods when she happens upon a badly wounded Union soldier. She helps him back to the girls’ school where she has been waiting out the war with the headmistress, a teacher and a handful of adolescent students.
At first, the ladies want to alert Confederate troops of the enemy’s presence. But soon, headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is giving Cpl. John McBurney a sponge bath, and all bets are off. McBurney, portrayed as an Irish conscript by Colin Farrell, becomes an object of fascination, obsession and finally vengeful lust on the part of Miss Martha and her minions, who include a quietly simmering instructor named Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a crafty, come-hither teenager named Alicia (Elle Fanning).
There are few directors around with as much command of material culture as Coppola, who imbues the setting’s silks, crinolines, glassware and candle wax with refulgent depth and texture. The Georgian mansion where “The Beguiled” takes place is dressed and staged as a redoubt of civilization against the lush, voracious state of nature that threatens it from every side. “Civilization,” of course, is meant ironically in a film that throws that notion into witty and finally rueful question: In this terrarium of ungovernable desire and deceit at their most florid, charm is soon revealed as cruelty, seductiveness as threat, victim as villain.
As an ensemble effort, “The Beguiled” is often sublime, with Kidman, Dunst and Fanning offering a formidable take on the three Graces, and Farrell beholding them like a startled woodland creature they’ve just snared. A remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood, Coppola’s “Beguiled” does away with Siegel’s pulpiest excesses and atmosphere of derangement, replacing them with a patina of richness and restraint that makes the story’s gruesome denouement all the more unsettling.
But Coppola has curiously left out an element of Siegel’s “Beguiled,” which, like this one, was based on a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. In the earlier film, the African American actress Mae Mercer played Hallie, an enslaved servant whose role as interlocutor and provocateur was crucial to the story. Coppola contrives to have black characters entirely missing from this narrative, with a character saying early in the film that “the slaves have left.” The racist institutions and practices at the root of the war are thus as invisible as the distant thunder of cannon fire heard beyond the school’s gates.
What’s left is a hothouse of white femininity that has been built on a lie — its fragility and innocence predicated on the dehumanization of African American men and women — whose social contours are never explicitly or even symbolically addressed. It’s unclear whether Coppola was uninterested in or unwilling to engage in that imaginative labor, or whether she trusts the audience to undertake it themselves. On its own terms, “The Beguiled” is a finely crafted, gemlike exercise in surface tension and subterranean stirrings. Seen through the prism of history and culture, it’s difficult not to feel that some essential truth has been lost in translation.
R. At area theaters. Contains some sexuality. 93 minutes.