In the 1971 version Eastwood plays a wounded soldier who is fighting on the Union side but ends up hiding out at a girls school in Mississippi where he is given shelter. During the course of the film the handsome Eastwood sleeps with one girl after another until finally the headmistress takes her revenge on the wayward soldier.
Coppola as both director and scriptwriter has turned this 1970s tale of sex and violence into a thriller playing on the sexual tensions a young male creates among this group of sheltered young women. Both Coppola’s version and Siegel’s are based on Thomas P Cullinan’s 1966 novel A Painted Devil and the basic outlines of the story have not changed.
The wounded Union soldier Corporal John McBurney is played by Colin Farrell and his is a deserter. He is not patriot but a recent Irish immigrant who signed on to the ranks of the Union forces for the 300 USD he was paid. When he shows up at Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, presided over by Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth, he unleashes pent-up sexual desires in both the girls and their mistress.
While Eastwood made this a bed hopping free-for-all Coppola plays down the sexual tensions which are more repressed but still potent. Kidman does a superb job with a rather clichéd character as the uptight Bible reading Christian who is in denial of her own sexuality. Somehow she brings this character to life and avoids the usual pitfalls. Kidman goes for subtle erotica rather than hysteria.
Bored teenager Alicia played by Elle Fanning flirts with the good looking young soldier and even attempts a few kisses but it’s pretty tame stuff. Certainly not anything compared to Eastwood among the sexually hungry girls in the earlier melodrama.
In the end McBurney falls for Edwina one of the teachers played by Kirsten Dunst. But by this time the film is already running out of steam and neither this love affair or the frustrations of the others engage us. McBurney’s leg is getting better and it seems he is about to leave but at this point the central act of the book and film takes place. Kidman cuts off his leg in an act of revenge for his betrayal. This should be powerful and dramatic but somehow it’s not.
Coppola has said she did the remake because she wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the women in the story. This is a worthy concept but somehow it lacks the power and drama of the book and earlier film. This novel just does not lend itself to political correctness or a female perspective. There is just not that much in the tale to give it that kind of depth while the drama of a thriller is lost amidst a lack of focus.
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard