Year Released: 2017
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
(R, 131 min.)
Genre: Southern Gothic Drama
“In revenge and in love woman is more barbaric than man.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Inside the white-walled southern Seminary for Girls it is all Christian charity and moral righteousness. But just outside a forest centuries old speaks of primitive passions. And all the white gowns, crystal, and delicate china inside are merely a fragile facade against age-old desires.
The film opens in the woods, which sets the menacing tone. These trees are not the pristine straight as an arrow upright denizens of the North. No they are the native live oaks of the South, thick of girth, with branches leaning downward to the forest floor, almost like some primitive malevolent giants ready to scoop up young innocents with practiced ease.
Young 12-yearl-old Amy (Oona Laurence) is certainly such an innocent, filling her basket with wild mushrooms as she roots around in sun-dappled darkness. Are we to conjure up an image of Little Red Riding Hood straying from the path into danger?
Well, the wounded soldier who lies under a tree is certainly an enemy. He (Colin Farrell) is a “blue belly,” a Yankee soldier in Confederate territory.
Amy brings the limping soldier back to the seminary, where they are greeted by their head Mistress, Martha Farnsworth, her assistant Edwina Dabbney (Kirsten Dunst ), and the four girls now in limited residency there. After some debate about turning him over the Confederate Army, they decide to heal his wounds first, so that he can survive his trip to imprisonment. Christian charity being their guiding principle, of course.
But we soon see that other motives are at work. It’s mainly giggles from the younger girls, but Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest among them, is certainly beguiled. And so is the shy Edwina, who tastes Private John McBurney‘s words of honeyed praise like a creature starved. Even the prim Miss Farnsworth seems to linger in his doorway.
The ensemble cast harmonize in their virtuoso performances. Under the firm hand of Director Sofia Coppola, there are no real villains here. Just variously flawed humans who all, to an extent, become victims of their own desires.
Perhaps John McBurney is the most imperfect, though he is certainly honest about himself. He readily admits he is no patriot, but merely a paid soldier, enlisting shortly after landing on America’s shores from Ireland. And he also readily confesses that he is a deserter, running from the battle that wounded him.
But he is less honest in his conversations with those tending him. He assures Amy that she is his special friend, and then calculates the way to win over others. A good shave and his Irish lilt add to the charm, tailor made for each female.
With Edwina he is ardent about her beauty, with Miss Farnsworth, he is a courtly gentleman caller, polite and deferential as he sips some sherry with her. His eyes only, just a few surreptitious glances, win over the adolescent Alicia.
Is John a rogue, an opportunist, or is this really a desperate calculation from someone who knows his future is in the hands of this small cadre of women? If they turn him over to the Confederate army as promised, now that he is mended, certainly imprisonment and possibly death await him.
John limps through the garden to trim the roses and tease his usefulness to them, all in hopes of staying on. But he tries too hard to sell himself, making verbal and tacit promises he does not fulfill, and then one trespass that cannot be forgiven.
The repercussions of that transgression explode upon the scene, turning the seminary into a battlefield as dangerous as one whose cannons distantly echo in their ears.
Some are left standing, but they will forever be the walking wounded. And it is their own hands and hearts that have wreaked such havoc.
Not to miss for discriminating viewers.
The mushrooms young Amy picks in the shadowy woods become a delicious dish. When he is well enough to join everyone at the table, they serve it to John McBurney. Sautéed with butter and wine, it is as irresistible to him as his presence is to the females seated around him in all their carefully assembled finery.
This savory dish seems to awaken appetites in all of them. To their undoing, perhaps?
But keep your thoughts pure as you feast on these tender fruits of darkness. Do not be drawn into it as they are.
Sautéed Mushrooms with Red Wine Recipe
lb. mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1⁄4 cup red wine
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Melt butter in large frying pan.
Add sliced mushrooms and sauté over high heat until they squeak and sizzle and are nicely browned.
Add salt, pepper and red wine.
Simmer for 5 minutes.
Add lemon juice and parsley.