On paper, or on the Internet, or wherever it was you first encountered it, this would have presented as at the very least an intriguing idea: Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation) bringing her delicate sensibility to bear on The Beguiled, the pulpy Thomas Cullinan novel published in 1966 and filmed by Don Siegel as a Clint Eastwood vehicle in 1971. Though that earlier adaptation still holds up as a rollicking, close-to-the-knuckle entertainment, it really is a raw steak of a movie, lusty, gory and gaudy, off-colour even when it isn't being openly incorrect - very much the work of a male actor-director pairing seeing just what they might be allowed to get away with in an era of newly relaxed censorship and incipient women's lib. (Further context: Eastwood filmed it the same year he made Dirty Harry and Play Misty for Me. The guy was on a roll back then, and nothing was going to stop him.) The welcome surprise is the extent to which Coppola succeeds in shaping her own distinct film from this material: lighter, ironised, unarguably tidier and more PC, but equally striking and involving, and affecting in a way its predecessor wasn't.
The set-up is exactly the same. In Virginia in the year 1864, with the Civil War raging within earshot but just beyond the frame, a wounded Yankee soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell, in the Eastwood role), is pulled out of the woods by a pupil of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, a sanctuary of sorts, left untouched by the surrounding conflict and populated by a small coterie of easily flustered Southern belles. It's within the Seminary that the two films' emphases begin to deviate. As their mutually braided hair establishes, Coppola's young ladies are as much of a girl gang as, say, the sisters in The Virgin Suicides or Marie-Antoinette and her attendants, and this telling is naturally a little more interested in their individual personalities - bored, curious, dreamy, uptight - than were Don and Clint. Their narrative developed along the lines of a ripe joke, a cackling cautionary tale about a pussyhound tripping over his own dick, such as might be burped across a table to a drinking buddy in some smoky watering hole: the girls were to some degree interchangeable, and secondary.
Coppola, for her part, approaches this story as though it were a teachable moment - a lesson in the games the sexes play, and continue to play. (Its ideal partner in any future double-bill wouldn't necessarily be the Siegel film, rather Catherine Breillat's take on the Bluebeard legend.) When McBurney rouses from his injuries, he realises he's on easy street so long as he presents different sides of his character to - or plays different roles for - those young ladies who are of an age to respond: showing a tantalising glimpse of flank, while dropping hints he might usefully be kept around as a gardener and companion, to the practically inclined Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, nicely eerie); recasting himself as a romantic adventurer for the schoolmarmy Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); offering a bit of rough to restless teen Alicia (Elle Fanning). Soon enough, everyone's competing to give him an extra dollop of cream on his apple pie and a song at his bedside, the tension - narrative, erotic - building until the point these girls themselves wake up to the fact this sharp-tongued charmer (and the casting of the ever-more-assured Farrell as the ultimate fuckboy counts as a minor stroke of genius) is, in fact, a snake in some very long and untended grass.
That gets Coppola's film two-thirds of the way towards where it's going; only in its final act does it start to feel a little like pale imitation. This director is au fait with the sex and sensuality written into this narrative - witness the tremendous moment when Farrell scatters the buttons of Dunst's dress in a climactic eruption of lust - but she gets squeamish around the violence the author intended as its equal and opposite effect. Coppola doesn't so much blanch as avert her eyes altogether in the run-up to the book (and the first film)'s key scene: let's just say a cut stands in for a cut, as though the filmmaker had been charged with composing her own inflight variation of these images. Much else about the concluding thirty minutes feels a touch hesitant or choppy: for all their blunt force, it's Siegel and Eastwood who seemed more inclined to linger over these final few pages, savouring every last bite of Cullinan's decidedly chewy punchline. Still, by then, Coppola has drawn enough elegant parallels and landed enough points for The Beguiled not to feel entirely self-sealed and cut off from the rest of the world, as many of this director's films have.
Granted, with the assistance of blue-chip collaborators (regular production designer Anne Ross, The Grandmaster cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, electroheads Phoenix), Coppola cultivates a hothouse atmosphere within the Farnsworth Seminary dorms, but it's especially amusing to watch The Beguiled in the wake of the debate the film has sparked in the corridors of Film Twitter - for here, surely, is that forum's perfect mirror image: boys trying to impress (or impress themselves upon) girls, girls ganging up to shut boys down, everybody winding up somewhere between 75-80% more overheated than they need to be, or than might be good for anybody's health. It's hard not to think Siegel and Eastwood took on Cullinan as a dare, egging each other on to do or say or show something nasty; Coppola is on to something else in this book, holding the Civil War at bay some distance beyond the Seminary's gates - which, for better or worse, takes the issue of race off the table - and instead reframing Cullinan's tale as a continuation of a longer-running battle, one still raging on paper, on the Internet, elsewhere. As the 2017 Beguiled's magnificently melancholy closing image makes palpable, this is a battle nobody can ever really win.
The Beguiled is now showing in selected cinemas.