Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2017. American Zoetrope, FR Productions. Screenplay by Sofia Coppola, based on the screenplay by Albert Maltz, Irene Kamp, and the novel by Thomas Cullinan. Cinematography by Philippe Le Sourd. Produced by Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley. Music by Laura Karpman, Phoenix. Production Design by Anne Ross. Costume Design by Stacey Battat. Film Editing by Sarah Flack. Cannes Film Festival 2017.
A little girl collecting mushrooms just beyond the grounds of her plantation in Civil War-ravaged Virginia discovers a severely injured Irish mercenary turned Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) lying in the grass. The plantation house is actually being used as a girls’ school, run by Nicole Kidman, who oversees the few remaining girls with a firm hand and, despite the fact that she should turn Farrell over to the Confederate soldiers who periodically pass by, decides that the Christian thing to do is to first allow him to recuperate from his wounds. A few days locked up in the music room, however, and it appears that these southern belles have had their spidey-senses tuned directly to the handsome mystery in their midst, with Kirsten Dunst (the best in the film) seeing the opportunity to cure a life free of romance while Elle Fanning (excellent as always) sees the chance to act upon the raging hormones bursting out of her maturing body. Sofia Coppola remakes Don Siegel’s excellent 1971 drama by wisely switching the point of view from the soldier (originally played by Clint Eastwood) to that of the women, turning a thriller about sexual paranoia of female sexuality into an examination of stifled women who are relegated to living as hothouse flowers kept under glass. The unfortunate thing is that, in switching the narrative around, Coppola has also softened it to the point that it is neither dramatically exciting or fun. Siegel’s terror of these womens’ desires gave his film a lot of humour, pitting Eastwood’s rooster-in-the-henhouse appetite against Geraldine Page’s inability to say anything that didn’t sound like an accusation for something so delicious that, by the time you got to a very unpleasant scene of home surgery, you were ready to explode from the tension. Coppola leaves the most intense parts of the story off screen (like when the Confederate soldiers come in for a visit) and downplays Farrell’s moments of both recuperation and scheming (the fact that he’s no longer a Yankee actually takes away a lot of the conflict, but given that Farrell is just about the most appealing rascal in movies today, it’s a crime that he’s so ineffectual here); then there is the fact that Kidman, who has never been afraid of exploring a character’s discomfiting madness, has very little discernible motivation (I understand that Coppola didn’t want to recreate Siegel’s silly excuse for a threesome, but for goodness sake let her do something fun). By the time you reach the final third where all the action is, a number of scenes make little sense (like the fact that he gets pretty agile on those crutches very quickly), contributing to the very surprising reality that a story so suited to themes that Coppola frequently explores in her films does not seem to work in this case.