Sofia Coppola’s sixth film may exhibit her signature languid style, but it’s as tightly crafted as the corsets of the women at the centre of her accomplished study of repression and gender dynamics. That she’s succinct at exploring the female experience is a given considering her CV, but that she’s able to do it with such wit, subtlety and brevity is something of a refreshing surprise.
Taking Don Siegel’s lurid 1971 Eastwood starrer (sexually hysterical women hell-bent on sublimating the alpha-male predator), Coppola switches the lens from a masculine to feminine perspective, redrawing the characters as complex creatures trapped by their situation rather than dumb ciphers driven by animal desire.
That situation then… as cannon-fire thunders in the distance during the American Civil War, a seminary for young ladies sits marooned among the fighting in West Virginia. With the slaves gone along with most of the students, a small community of girls, their teacher and headmistress remain; isolated in a crumbling mansion, scratching around for food, trapped in a limbo of routine French and sewing lessons, trying to maintain their pre-conflict existence.
In this embryonic regime, head Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and tutor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) can beguile themselves that they have purpose, that the outside world does not exist. Until one of the girls brings a wounded Union ‘blue belly’ soldier home and the spell is broken. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) reminds each of the school’s inhabitants (from tween to maven) of secret longings, provoking tension and ultimately violence. “There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun,” Miss Martha jokes at one point. Oh yes there is…
While Coppola’s update cleaves closely to the plot points and ending of the original, her casting and nuanced script gives the key players in this Deep South Lord of the Flies more understandable motivation and provides greater audience empathy. Make no mistake, a gender war is raging here among the dreamy Spanish moss; but culpability remains as shadowy as the school’s candlelit chambers.
While Eastwood’s infantryman was an unreconstructed sexual predator, Farrell is an Irish charmer who uses what he’s got to get the easy life. As an opportunist who’s taken another man’s place on the battlefield for 300 bucks, if a kind word here, a wanton stare there and the gift of a button here gets him a pass from the trenches, he’ll do it.
He is as much repressed by his social and monetary standing as the school residents are by their religious beliefs and social expectations. An unsophisticated man who’s already shown he’ll take gambles that don’t pay off, it’s not a question of whether McBurney will come unstuck trying to play the women off against each other, but when.
And those women… changing Miss Martha from a bitter crone to a worldly forty-something who had a man in her life before the war makes the competition between the residents all the more intriguing. Martha wants sex (a bed bath that she gives an unconscious McBurney is charged with eroticism as a puddle of water quivers in the hollow of his throat and her hand trembles over his hip) while Edwina’s after love and escape. Elle Fanning’s saucy teen Alicia craves seduction, and the girls, attention.
Though McBurney is the prize, the women are running the show. A dinner party where each of them jostle for his attention and slut-shame each other in the most courteous fashion is an absolute delight. Who knew a prestige period pic could mine such laughs from the decorous way in which apple pie is offered, or the cut of a dress dismissed?
Coppola’s lightness of touch and the skills of her uniformly excellent cast ensure this and other scenes (such as McBurney’s Diet Coke ad moment when he’s watched while sweatily gardening) are knowingly amusing rather than tacky. “Your flower garden needs tending,” Farrell manages to tell Kidman without making it Sid James smutty.
That said, the playfulness is always tempered by tension and a sense of foreboding, heightened by Philippe Le Sourd’s evocative cinematography and the stark sound design. As the cicadas reach their crescendo in the heat, so the pace picks up and before you can say “over in 90 mins”, folks have properly lost their shit. That too is a pleasant surprise – a Cannes favourite and awards season frontrunner that plays like a popcorn movie and leaves you wanting more.