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Short Take: The Beguiled

(Sofia Coppola, USA, Focus Features, Opened June 23)

Corseted and clad in immaculate costumes of ivory, cream, and dove-gray, whether for gardening, dinner, or an impromptu wound-dressing, Sofia Coppola’s latest film at times feels as genteel as its setting: Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies (in Virginia, we’re told, although the scenery screams Louisiana, where it was actually shot).

Billed as a fresh take on Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier in hiding at the school, Coppola’s screenplay meticulously softens or eliminates everything that was bold and frightening about Don Siegel’s 1971 film version. The corporal (Colin Farrell) spends a long while being elaborately courteous to his hostesses, played by a group that includes Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and Nicole Kidman as the headmistress. The slave who toiled for the Confederate ladies in Siegel’s film has been dispatched, along with all the messy issues her presence might raise.

The wisps of themes—feminine competition, man as the snake in this Eden—don’t register as much as the pristine antebellum lighting and graceful tableaux of the girls at prayer or at lessons. The story’s key moment, when the soldier’s leg is amputated, here seems not like a ghastly form of castration, but rather a reasonable medical decision on the part of the concerned headmistress. A potentially chilling moment involving the death of a pet is rushed and anticlimactic, as is the sexual betrayal. After the would-be Gothic goings-on have run their course, the movie fades out with the same hushed, humid prettiness with which it began.