A new Sofia Coppola movie is no longer an event.
It’s a reminder of a bright career not living up to its potential.
Who didn’t cheer her 2004 breakout hit “Lost in Translation?” From there, she delivered disappointments (“Somewhere”) oddities (“The Bling Ring”) and awards-bait misfires (“Marie Antoinette”).
With “The Beguiled,” she adds a new brand of letdown.
Colin Farrell stars as a wounded Union soldier who finds shelter within the immaculate halls of a girls boarding school in Virginia. The women take him in and tend to his wounds, but they can’t promise what will happen once the Confederate Army arrives.
So he waits, grits his teeth through the pain and offers his benefactors his best manners. And oh, do they respond in kind. Cloistered and curious, they buzz around Farrell’s John McBurney like he’s a new toy delivered on Christmas morn.
He takes full advantage of that interest. And it just might cost him dearly.
The story, based on Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film of the same name, leaves out some of the original film’s texture. There’s no slave character for John to win over, and the potential jealousies between the women rarely simmer.
The lack of tension in the film’s first act. It’s gorgeously composed, with fine southern mist wrapping around the building. It’s also yawn inducing.
Coppola, who also wrote the script, can’t get beyond the characters’ core archetypes. Nicole Kidman is the middle-aged matriarch who longs for a man’s caress. Kirsten Dunst’s character quickly obsesses over John, but we learn little else about her.
The younger girls bubble with inquisitive stares, providing a few mild chuckles at best. So what about John? He’s both selfish and inscrutable, leaving his fate a matter of only passing interest.
FAST FACT: Sofia Coppola became the first American woman to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar for 2004’s “Lost in Translation.”
The film is like a lovely painting, one you admire for a moment but quickly move on to other installations. A second act crisis snaps us to attention. Now, we’re fully engaged, and the film appears to find its purpose. It makes the film’s drab finale even more crushing.
One thing is clear: Coppola can summon a gorgeous tapestry, but she’s incapable of tightening the plots screws as required.
The director’s sense of period details is another matter. And that doesn’t just cover the exquisite costumes on display. The women in the house aren’t empowered 21st-century style. They’re meek and unsure of the strengths they might tap should their house guest turn on them.
That sense of discovery, though is rarely as fascinating as it should be.
At 46, Coppola remains a relatively young artist by directorial standards. With each new film her youthful promise gives way to an auteur unable to grab audiences by the scruff of the neck.
HiT or Miss: “The Beguiled” is slick, expertly packaged and nagging in how it squanders such a ripe dramatic setup.