The Beguiled film review: Sofia Coppola directs Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst in this steamy Civil War pot-boiler

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Sofia Coppola’s varied filmography includes the wistful story of two jet-lagged would-be lovers, the wistful story of Marie Antoinette, the wistful story of a washed-up Hollywood actor and the wistful story of a group of teenage house-breakers.

Each one is an exquisitely crafted study of the human condition, suffused with longing and loneliness, never hurried, beautiful from first frame to last. Her latest film continues the trend, with a wistful story about wanting to fuck Colin Farrell.

The Beguiled is a remake of a 1971 American Civil War drama starring Clint Eastwood, in which a wounded Yankee soldier stumbles upon an all-girls’ boarding school filled with lusty southern belles. Coppola’s take is far smarter than its pulpy forebear, however, less a male-fantasy pot-boiler, more a psycho-sexual drama about men’s disruptive influence on women.

Farrell’s Corporal McBurney, an Irishman straight off the boat who took another man’s place in the war for a paltry $300, is Mr Darcy and Heathcliff rolled into one unstoppable sexual tsunami. Even better, he’s badly injured, requiring love and attention to coax him back to health, like one of the broken little birds the younger girls collect and raise like living dolls.

The three central women – Nicole Kidman’s breathy school ma’am Miss Martha, Kirsten Dunst’s retiring wallflower Edwina, and Elle Fanning’s precocious teen Alicia – swoon over every mop of his wetted brow or glimpse of his shapely thigh. The only thing steamier than the Virginia nights are the ladies’ gussets in this once-prim seminary.

For his part, McBurney is such a charmer he must have made it to third base with the Blarney Stone. He knows instinctively how to handle each of the women – to Miss Martha he’s subservient and deferential, before Edwina he’s a hopeless old romantic, and with Alicia he’s just a horny old fella, which is enough.

Coppola is careful not to skew the balance of our affections too far in either direction, however. McBurney may be a rogue, but he’s a lovable rogue, and the women’s kindness is offset by their passive aggressive attitude towards one other as it becomes clear they’re sexual rivals. McBurney’s fatal mistake is to underestimate the women; when push comes to shove-down-the-stairs, Miss Martha and co reveal hidden depths of malice and resourcefulness.

By this stage, Coppola’s filmmaking nous is beyond question, and the visuals in The Beguiled are utterly beguiling. The staid, crumbling opulence of the house in which McBurney is confined – which has shades of both Marie Antoinette and The Virgin Suicides – is in stark contrast to the wild, hazy gardens, where trees form living tunnels that are penetrated by thrusting shards of light. From the opening garish-pink title card, it’s unmistakeably a Sofia Coppola movie.

Everything unfurls languidly, like an evening flower, the slow-building eroticism gradually rising to knee trembling proportions. It’s also quietly funny, especially the scenes set over dinner, in which the women bicker over who was responsible for the apple pie and cast aspersions over the honour of those with exposed shoulders. Then, before you know it, it’s transformed into a dark fairytale, morally ambiguous, with a resolution that’s both satisfying and transgressive.

This is Coppola in her stride as a director, the eternal outsider peering in, the introvert eavesdropping at the door, the artist sketching a sultry picture of the sex lives of others: it’s a spectacle that shouldn’t be missed.