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Movie review: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst deliver stories of survival in ‘The Beguiled’

June 29, 2017 GMT

The visual of the Deep South is unmistakable in the opening shot of “The Beguiled,” as a long road winds to a large mansion beneath giant oaks with hanging Spanish moss.

We can hear cicadas singing, creating a soundtrack that is natural and peaceful. But that sound proves deceptive.

Another sound is present in the distance, faint but distinctive: It is cannons firing. A Civil War battle is being fought nearby.

“The Beguiled” is about a war as well, with its own personal battles, and it will be fought entirely inside this large house where young ladies are being taught manners, to speak French and more for that time when the cannons stop firing.

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Their existence is one of hushed tedium and discipline until a badly wounded Union soldier is brought into this all-girl boarding school where no man has lived for several years.

The film’s storyline will be familiar to those who saw the 1971 Clint Eastwood film of the same name, based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel.

Director Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation”) excels with another story about isolation and the paths that people choose to escape it.

Her version tells the tale from the women’s perspective rather than the soldier’s story, and that creates a film that is more mysterious and, ultimately, more chilling.

Coppola’s light touch seems appropriate for that focus, as opposed to the sexually charged action dynamic created by Eastwood and his director Don Siegel — the pair who also teamed on another 1971 film: “Dirty Harry.”

Not that this film couldn’t have used more action at times — it’s a slow-starter — but the journey is worth the stay.

The headmistress of this school is played by Nicole Kidman, with Kirsten Dunst as her assistant, and both are strict but caring when it comes to the five girls in their charge.

Both deliver restrained performances in a restrained movie, in a manner of quiet desperation that also feels authentic: It is the Civil War in the South, and all of these people have lost so much. Desperation surrounds them.

They seem perpetually exhausted, almost resigned to a war with no end, only to see their world shaken up when they discover Colin Farrell’s Yankee soldier collapsed with a leg injury on their property.

The house is abuzz as he convalesces there, charming each female, who in turn becomes more giggly and conscious of her appearance in this house of sexual repression.

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But even this buildup comes in measured moments, with neither Kidman nor Dunst making star turns but rather becoming part of an ensemble with the young actresses in their midst.

It makes moments like when they gather for prayer, for meals and for their own security that much more meaningful.

These ladies are individuals in thought and self-preservation, but in these troubled times, they also realize that there is strength in numbers.

That’s true even when their changing relationships toward the soldier makes some turn against others, with desire smashing into jealousy in a dangerous competition.

The power struggle that emerges from these events, and how that power is used by each gender, is a fascinating reveal.

This is all set against a thankfully restrained but creative score by French rock band Phoenix (Coppola has always been unorthodox in score choices) and costuming that puts the women wearing so much white that we are meant to see this place as virgin territory.

“The Beguiled” is clever, surprising and less aggressive than your average wartime tale, and that seems appropriate for a story of survival told with a woman’s touch.

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