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'The Beguiled' remake gains in artfulness but loses power

Don Siegel's "The Beguiled" from 1971, is my favorite Clint Eastwood movie. That's, in part, because it's completely unlike every other one.

Siegel always called it his favorite of all his movies which, when you consider that they include "Madigan," "Coogan's Bluff," "Dirty Harry," and one of the all-time greatest B-movies, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," that's saying something.

Deliberately remaking Siegel's "The Beguiled " from a female point of view was one of the more brilliant and intriguing movie ideas in our new century. It came from Sofia Coppola, a member of one of America's first film families and director of the marvelous "Lost in Translation," one of Bill Murray's best films.

Coppola won the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Director for "The Beguiled." If the only subjects we were talking about were artfulness and refinement, the prize was well-deserved. The movie is exquisitely photographed by Philippe LeSourd.

It's also close to dramatically inert for far too much of the time.

I'm not sure that I can tell you how much I looked forward to this film. The idea of one of our best young filmmakers feminizing a classic originally made by a macho star in America's second-wave feminist explosion was extraordinary.

There's no question that this new "The Beguiled" is far more of a female film – as Coppola intended – than the original. It's far less crude and far more given to subtlety and refinement. No one could possibly accuse it of misogyny, as they could Siegel's original. But the great paradox of Siegel's  movie is that, for all its macho crudity, it seems a far more convincingly feminist film than the new one could ever be.

It came from the same general era as Eastwood's directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me," in which he played a disc jockey trying to protect himself against a deranged female fan. What Siegel gave us with brazen candor  in "The Beguiled" is an uncluttered look at male fear of women. To put it mildly, that is not a favorite macho male subject.

"The Beguiled" is the story of a Union soldier wounded and caught behind enemy lines who is discovered in the Virginia woods by a 12-year-old student in a female boarding school. The school has reduced its population to six – a headmistress (Nicole Kidman), a teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and four students.

It's the very crudity of the original that propels the story so brilliantly. It was perfectly cast – Eastwood, as the wounded soldier whose every smile threatened to turn into a knowing smirk. He is tall and handsome and with good manners, but with the offhand steely conviction that he could get away with anything. Geraldine Page, a formidable actress of conspicuous authority, played the headmistress.

Against Eastwood and Page, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman are functional but are mere shadows of the originals. Farrell doesn't seem like the secure embodiment of male entitlement; rather, he is a little boy trying to get away with two-timing naughtiness. Kidman doesn't seem so much erotically charged as socially confused about how to treat an enemy soldier who's a social inferior.

In the original film, Eastwood reportedly had a real affair which lasted beyond the film with JoAnn Harris, who played his 17-year old seducer among the students. In the original, the soldier is a player – a masterful manipulator using women's sexuality for his own amusement. In Coppola's film, he's a heedless kid too slow-witted to know what he's playing with when he's manipulating sexually vulnerable women against each other.

The original film smolders. When it explodes, it almost turns into a comeuppance for male sexual entitlement everywhere. In the new film, the explosions merely happens to one awkward Union soldier who didn't know how to express gratitude to the women who saved his life.

Coppola's is a very good movie but a small and forgettable one.

I'd urge you to see the original which, for all its ungainliness, shows what happens when archetypal presumptions of male privilege encounter well-practiced communal female power. You're unlikely to forget it. I still haven't.

"The Beguiled"

3 stars (out of four)

Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell star in Sofia Coppola's remake 1971 movie about a wounded Union soldier stuck in a Southern boarding school. Rated R for sexuality, 94 minutes.

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