Sofia Coppola’s latest project is a remake of an old Clint Eastwood film based on a novel, and at first glance seems like an odd choice for her due to its Civil War setting and dramatic thriller genre. She proves to have made an astute decision with this mesmerizing film, leading to her best director win at Cannes this year. While the film seems to have been largely ignored at the U.S. box office, this new Blu-ray release will hopefully help it find its well-deserved audience.
When an injured Union soldier finds refuge at an isolated girls’ boarding school in Virginia, the routines of the school are thrown into disarray. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) has to choose between turning him over to the local Confederate soldiers or harboring an enemy soldier, while the soldier (Colin Farrell) desperately attempts to ingratiate himself to the residents, initially in an attempt to save his own life but ultimately as a way to find his own path forward. Meanwhile, the teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and her oldest student (Elle Fanning) grapple with their feelings about the soldier, leading to shifting alliances in the previously harmonious school and setting up a disturbing turn of events that leads to a thrilling final act.
Coppola has constructed a fine project, with a great take on the script that leans toward the female characters’ perspective without sacrificing the soldier’s point of view. Her sure-handed direction slowly ratchets up the sexual tension in the house starting from the very first moment the soldier is brought to the house and surrounded by all of the ladies. The film is a delicious slow burn until its inevitable eruption, with the final act a pulse-pounding conclusion that expertly resolves all character arcs.
As for the cast, the best performances are contributed by Farrell and Kidman, with Farrell in particular being the most, well, beguiling he’s ever been on film. Kidman gets great mileage out of her reserved, uptight headmistress character without overdoing it. Fanning puts in good work as the blossoming oldest student bucking against the restrictions of her school and rapidly disappearing childhood, while frequent Coppola collaborator Dunst disappoints with her sullen, typically dead-eyed take on her repressed teacher role, making it far-fetched when Farrell’s lively character professes affection for her. The younger students are basically afterthoughts simply present to populate the school, but Oona Laurence makes the biggest impact as the girl who first finds the injured soldier.
The film looks outstanding on Blu-ray, largely due to superb cinematography work by director of photography Phillipe Le Sourd. His expert framing and capture of the lighting make many shots look like they belong on a gallery wall instead of in a film. Surprisingly, the sound design is also phenomenal, especially notable in the immersive environmental sound effects of nature and distant cannon shots that fully envelop viewers in the lush DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundscape. Bonus features are largely inconsequential, with just two brief marketing fluff pieces featuring on-set interviews with the cast and Coppola where they rave about each other.