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‘Beguiled’ women band together in show of strength

Of all the movies flooding the multiplexes this summer, none will ruffle your petticoat quite like writer-director Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric thriller “The Beguiled.”

Set in 1864 Virginia, the whole affair is so understatedly steamy, each ticket should come with one of those lace folding fans, lest any audience members find themselves succumbing to the vapors.

Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the five students yet to be evacuated from Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Girls and the nearby bloodshed of the Civil War, is out picking mushrooms when she comes across Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell), an injured Union soldier.

Fearing he’ll die if he’s left alone, Amy helps him hobble back to the school, much to the gasps and flustered chagrin of the other girls — not to mention Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who teaches everything from French to penmanship as cannon fire rumbles in the distance.

Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) plans to clean out McBurney’s leg wound — “There’s enough metal in here to shoe a horse,” she exclaims — then allow him to heal before turning him over to Confederate troops.

“You know they rape every Southern woman they come across,” prissy young Jane (Angourie Rice) says of Union soldiers as McBurney is met with a mixture of fear and awe.

Before long, though, he’s cleaned up, begins holding court in the school’s music room, and everyone from Miss Martha down to the youngest girl begins dressing a bit nicer. Miss Martha even has to admonish Edwina to cover her shoulders at dinner.

Once he’s able to move around a bit, McBurney begins helping out in the garden, where he exchanges passing glances and bashful waves with Miss Martha, Edwina and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest and most curious of the students.

In adapting the novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, which already served as the basis of 1971’s “The Beguiled” starring Clint Eastwood, Coppola has crafted a film that’s bursting at its corset seams with barely acknowledged desire.

Competitive streaks flare as the women reveal their worst traits while trying to win McBurney’s affections. Yet when their situation takes an unexpectedly dark turn, they band together in a proto-feminist show of strength. It’s not exactly “Wonder Woman”-levels of empowerment, but it isn’t bad for a bunch of refined and mannered ladies.

When their lives are on the line, their response is anything but civil.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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