Release Date: 23rd June 2017 (United States)
Running Time: 94 minutes
Sofia Coppola remakes Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood’s 1971 red-blooded original, providing an altogether more delicate piece as an all-girls’ seminary finds its peace shattered by the arrival of a wounded soldier.
The American Civil war is raging in Virginia close to the Girls’ School run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) when pupil Amy finds Yankee mercenary Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) who has deserted the battle following a leg wound. She helps him to the school where Miss Martha, teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and the five remaining students are immediately fascinated by their handsome guest.
The unconscious Corporal is locked in a room and tended by Miss Martha, who mends his wounds and washes down the soldier, soon finding herself rather overcome by the process. As he recovers McBurney is soon visited by a succession of the pupils, as well as the two teachers, who all pander for the attention of the new arrival. McBurney for his part revels in his new found situation, telling Edwina “In all my travels, I’ve never come across a delicate beauty like yours” and Amy “I consider you my best friend in this place”, though we’re never quite sure who is the predator and who is the prey.
Between the attentions of Alicia (Elle Fanning), a teenage student who desires seem a little less ladylike than the others, as well as Miss Martha and Miss Edwina then it seems a recuperated McBurney is certainly in no mood to leave, and as Confederate soldiers arrive at the door the females resolve not to give up their guest. A rather delightful dinner follows, brimming with understated humour as girls fall over each other to claim a hand in an apple pie their guest is enjoying.
The period detail and mooted, sepia colours set the tone throughout and Copella and cast let the scenes play out with subtlety, as much said in glances and body language as in the script. The atmosphere is twinged with tension that borders on Gothic horror from early on; white dresses providing a blazing contrast to both moody exterior and dimly lit interiors, as well as blood later.
The cast never misstep and Kidman in particular revels in the role of the prim and proper headmistress. The group scenes are the punchiest; music recitals and dinners providing the coquettish female harem with room to compete for the soldier’s attentions, Coppola giving the women centre stage in a reversal of Siegal’s rather over the top, macho affair.
The subtlety and pace at times though borders on languor, and when the tempo changes it does so with a staccatoed abruptness, the pace and story almost moving too quickly to the film’s climax. The overall impact is somewhat underwhelming and despite the gentle, almost camp, humour and underlying tension in the set up, the rushed finish leaves a disappointing aftertaste with Dunst’s character Edwina in particular feeling rather neglected at the climax story-wise.
This is an ambitious remake for Coppola, and one that is broadly successful despite a few missteps in the pacing.