It’s the height of the Civil War. Heroic generals and dashing soldiers wage epic battles, both sides believing their cause is just… but this is not a story about them. This is a story about women and girls, specifically the women and girls living at Martha Farnsworth’s (Nicole Kidman) Mississippi boarding school. While out foraging for mushrooms one day, Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the youngest students, stumbles upon an injured Union soldier. He tells her that his name is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and asks for her help. She helps him back to the school, where the women attend to his wounds. But the arrival of this man shatters the former equilibrium of the school, and McBurney’s interactions with Amy, Martha, the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and teenaged student Alicia (Elle Fanning) threaten to turn the women’s social order upside down.
In many ways this film reminds me of 2015’s The Keeping Room, which examined the often-forgotten violence inflicted upon and by women during this time period. Coppola’s work, by contrast, takes a more subtle approach, focusing on suspense and tension rather than violence. This includes both the tension inherent to violence (or the threat thereof) as well as sexual tension, and Coppola expertly uses both to ensure the audience is always waiting with baited breathe to see what happens next. In addition to being an excellent suspense film, it is also an enchanting period piece. The sets, costumes, music, and the dialect used by the actors all contribute to paint a beautiful, yet also terrible, picture of life during an era long gone by.
The other aspect of the film that really stands out is the depth of characterization on display. This film is also a character study, but a character study of its entire cast, examining everything from McBurney’s desire to capitalize on his new-found surroundings to Edwina’s crippling self-doubts to Alicia’s budding sexuality. All of the characters’ desires and fears intricately weave in and out of each other, and we as viewers are permitted to view their interactions, and resulting consequences, much as psychologist might observe a group study. In this respect, the film also reminds me of Coppola’s classic drama Lost in Translation. The film never pushes a narrative or favors any one individual, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusions regarding the events they witness.
The only real complaint I have with the film is that the ending is pretty predictable, and honestly feels a little overly simple after all the tension and suspense that is built up in the film. Although I suppose this might be entirely intentional, since anything else might have broken the tone and feel of the story. But all in all, Sofia Coppola’s interpretation of a classic Civil War tale is perfect if you’re looking for something a little subdued between raucous summer blockbusters.