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The Beguiled

Year: 2017
Production Co: American Zoetrope
Director: Sofia Coppola
Writer: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice

First things first – I've never been able to imagine Clint Eastwood as a romantic lead, even after how effective he was in The Bridges of Madison County (although Meryl Streep did most of the heavy lifting there), so I don't think I could bring myself to watch the original version of this film.

I watched this version because I'd watch a commercial for a chain of hamburger restaurants if Sofia Coppola directed it, although to be honest it's one of her lesser efforts. If Mills & Boon and Hallmark partnered on a movie and spent real money getting an A list director, art director and production designer, this would be it. It's only Coppola's name on it that made it a festival circuit contender.

It's the Civil War in the steamy forests of Virginia and a small group of women live and study in the grand manor house where their school is housed. Teachers Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) duly teach students Alicia (Elle Fanning), Amy (Oona Laurence), Jane (Angourie Rice) and a couple of other teens and tweens, buttoning them up into corsets and bustles, doing their quiet, staid lessons in the library or drawing room, going for walks and playing music in the parlour with the distant guns and explosions of the war sounding across the horizon.

One day Amy finds an injured soldier in the woods, helping him back to the house where the adults fuss over and patch him up. Being a northerner, some of the girls think he should be handed over to the confederate soldiers who occasionally pass through for supplies and rest, but McBurney (Colin Farrell) is so grateful and polite and so willing to help around the house and garden he's soon a fixture in their lives.

To the unenlightened with no feminist bent whatsoever it might seem like it's just a case of a jolt of testosterone being dropped into a pool of festering and frustrated oestrogen as McBurney quickly turns into the most exciting thing that's happened to the household since the war started.

Inevitably, sexual tensions arise. During a hushed conversation, Edwina tells McBurney how unhappy she is being stuck at the house and fantasises about running away with him, but she's not the only one drawn to the soldier, the other girls plying him with gifts, singing for him, lavishing with a grand dinner – several among them who are of age hinting at romantic involvement.

From there it's honestly just a bit of a Barbara Cartland potboiler. When the romantic tension breaks and McBurney acts on the advances of one of the ladies of the house, the ensuing argument and accident seals a fate that momentarily turns it into a thriller.

But even as the mood in the house turns sour and threatening, the goings-on are fairly pedestrian. There's no real surprise or twist – even the method the women devise to deal with the problem endangering them in the third act is discussed in detail prior to being carried out – and a story this languid needs a bit of narrative tension to go along with the romantic tension.

It's easy to see why Coppola was drawn to the script and probably the novel, giving her a way to indulge everything she loves about design, fashion and architecture. There's just such a slight story behind it that keeps itself so buttoned up (it's true to the era depicted, so a raunchy Mills & Boon would have been very inauthentic) that it's not very gripping.

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