The story unfolds during the Civil War at a Southern girls’ boarding school. An injured Union soldier (Colin Farrell) is given refuge and tended to by the women at the school including the headmistress Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), a prim teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and a very curious student (Elle Fanning). Sexual tension and dangerous rivalries supposedly happen.
Yet “antiseptic” is the word that came to my mind the most while watching this film. Where is this supposed sexual tension? Where are the rivalries that simmer with jealousy and danger? In adapting the original novel by Thomas Cullinan, and the 1971 script by Albert Maltz and Grimes Grice, Coppola said she wanted to shift the focus from the soldier to the women. Yet what she did was strip away all the passion and dial down the desire to almost non existence. Coppola took out the heat, fun and tangled relationships and loyalties and kinda added nothing. Even the amusing stuff we heard in the trailer occurs off screen. There are no “vengeful bitches” in this version. The movie just sits there, only at the very end does it spring to life. And then only briefly..
Coppola has also erased the one black woman character from her adaptation, saying she didn’t want to deal “lightly” with slavery. It's fine if she doesn't want to depict slaves. But then why keep the American Civil War setting? Just move it to any other war and time, if all she wanted was to explore the dynamics between the white women. Any genteel isolated old timey society would've sufficed.
The actors are all good if dull. Dunst, in particular, doesn’t fare well. Her character should have the biggest arc, yet she’s not given the chance to unleash any fervor. Her performance is a slow burn that never lets it rip and ends without even a whimper. Not her fault but rather the writing and direction. Only Kidman understands what this story could be, and infuses her performance with mischievous archness. She should've been the auteur of this.