Focus Features 1 hour 33 minutes R
A majestic Southern plantation setting, A-list cast and second remake of a novel that was first made into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in 1971. This one is filled with drama and desire which make it enticing. Director Sofia Coppola has created a beautiful piece of period filmmaking that beguiles audiences for an hour and 33 minutes watching well-portrayed multi-layered characters. Coppola wrote the screenplay and is the first woman in 50 years to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for this film.
Nicole Kidman is the glue that holds this saga together. Although set in Virginia and shot in New Orleans, it’s been referred to as a Western. It reminded us more of a Gone With The Wind story with sexual tension and female angst.
The film opens with a follow shot of a little girl picking wild mushrooms in the woods. She jumps when she come across a wounded Yankee Soldier, (ColinFarrell) with a serious leg injury. He is really the enemy, but she takes pity and helps him to the boarding school for women run by Miss Martha Farnsworth. Their day is made up of classes in etiquette, dance, corset training, sewing, and French. And the cast had to take lessons in all of these disciplines to prep for the film.
In addition, Kidman had to take lessons in medical treatment as it was carried out at that time from from a Civil War re-enacter for her scenes mending the intruder’s wounds. He is totally unconscious as she is sewing up his leg. But why wasn’t he screaming? They had no ether or other sedatives besides liquor to numb the pain and yet he is out through it all. Not sure that would be true to life. Miss Martha also had to wash him up. That scene took some 2 hours of sponging Farrell in repeated takes because Coppola says the light kept changing. Farrell must’ve been pickled and puckered by the end of it.
Kirsten Dunst is Edwina, Elle Fanning is the flirty Alicia, Angourie Rice is Jane and Oona Laurence (Bad Moms) is Amy, the little girl who finds and brings the Yankee Soldier McBurney (Colin Farrell) into their realm. The solider represents the enemy among these women and they are panic stricken. Do they turn him over to the Confederate soldiers, or heal him first, or hide him? It gets complicated, especially when he becomes the well-behaved house guest who starts turning on the charm for the ladies. And they each react to the new man in the house in little ways at first and then by dressing up and more.
In the original book and 1971 movie, the women had a slave named Hallie, but Coppola said she didn’t want to treat that subject lightly and cut her character from this film and keep it to these women forced by the War to fend for themselves.
Farrell plays Colonel McBurney as charming and disarming. He sometimes looks like a restless panther about to strike. At other times, he’s so handsome and sweet, you can see why these women are drawn to him, besides the fact that any available local men were off to war. Farrell calls this his favorite shoot “surrounded by talented, decent, smart, insightful creative and serious women,” including Director Coppola.
The film rolls along at a slow and steady pace, depicting the characters in detail, showing multiple layers of prim and proper behavior and shades of whatever is seething underneath. Coppola slowly exposes each character with Kidman at the helm who tries to be strong, but starts to be taken in by the cunning soldier.
Coppola says Kidman had exactly what she was looking for because the actress can show some 5 emotions at once and not necessarily through dialogue. The interaction of this interloper surrounded by women is only interrupted by beautiful landscapes captured by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds, The Grand Master) of the mansion, and it’s grounds. Much of the film is almost sepia toned which makes the contrast of the women in white more dramatic.
But inside the house, it becomes a little like a drawing room farce/drama, with Farrell’s various one on one interactions with Edwina, Alicia, and Miss Martha. There is secrecy mixed with signs of desire and lust. Will they vie for his attention and affection? They do, and in the midst of being caught, he falls. As a result, the injured leg he was trying to save must be amputated. It’s a pretty gruesome turn of events.
The film builds layer upon layer until the situation comes to a climax. Farrell does rage well. Now that they have an angry captive in their midst, what will they do? Who will outsmart who? Will the women work against each other or together? What they do is pretty clever, but we think the end seems just a little rushed and wrapping it up too quickly.
The set design and wardrobe are definitely worth noting. Miss Martha and her charges wear perfectly starched and tailored corseted white dresses with crinolines of that period. Hard to imagine they were able to maintain such crispness in the middle of the Civil War, but they were living as if on a kind of isolated island adhering to the Boarding School rules. Coppola enlisted the talents of production designer Anne Ross and with costume designer Stacey Battat, both of whom she’s collaborated with at least 4 times. And the detail in every room of the house is very specific. Although the story is set in Virginia, the home used as the set is in New Orleans and actually belongs to actress Jennifer Coolidge.
If you like period melodrama, this is a beautifully shot film with excellent performances. But there is very little about the Civil War and the politics of the day. It is a tale about one errant soldier who got more than he bargained for from the enemy.