A little girl weaves in and out of the shadows of trees in Virginia, digging her fingers into the earth and picking mushrooms, before stumbling across a bloodied Union soldier. It sets the mood — dark, visceral and gritty (especially by costume drama standards) — for Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 movie.
Deserter John McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself transported from the horrors of battle to the perhaps even more brutal world of a girls’ school, where two teachers (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and five students (including Elle Fanning) live in intense isolation, waiting for news of the outside world, breath baited in fear (and, in some cases, anticipation) at the thought that Union soldiers may attack, rob from them and rape them.
The film does a beautiful job of bringing us into these women’s world. They stitch, cook, garden with visible effort, compared to the lacklustre embroidery efforts we’re used to seeing in film adaptations of nineteenth-century works. The school’s slaves have fled. There are no men. We almost feel the effort as the girls pump water or lift the hoe.
The lighting is also incredible. The candles aren’t just period props but appear to be the only source of light, giving the film the appearance of a Gothic painting, with girls, dressed in white, flitting through the shadows. The camerawork puts us in the position of a voyeur, peeping into the house and spying from behind tree branches.
Where then does the movie go so wrong?
Despite a talented cast and the gorgeous production, the movie feels vapid. Characters are underdeveloped, motivations unclear, and the dynamics between the women, which have real promise in the early scenes after McBurney’s arrival, go undeveloped. The story has little more depth than the film’s overly revealing trailer and, consequently, there’s no emotional payoff to match the atmosphere.
Dunst and Farrell in particular struggle to make something of their characters’ few lines of feeble backstory and we’re left with so many questions that it’s hard to see this world as three-dimensional at all. It’s more compelling as a series of beautiful tableaux, the viewer’s imagination creating what the filmmakers could not.