“Edwina,” says the eponymous head of the Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (Nicole Kidman) to her obedient teacher (Kirsten Dunst), “bring me the anatomy book.” Cue the Eastenders doofs. The reason for her blunt order? One of her five students, Amy (Oona Laurence), has stumbled upon an injured Unionist soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), while out picking mushrooms in the wood. Remember the mushrooms for they are a game-changer.
Torn between tying a blue flag to the gates of her seminary which would signal to the Republican patrol that they have captured a “blue-belly” yankee or tending to his wounds which would give her an opportunity to fawn over his handsome physique, she understandably opts for the latter. Much to the relief of her students who, one by one, fall for his beguiling and compete for his affection. Here a neck pin, there an earring. Here a silk gown, there a lace negligee. Topped off with what the BBFC laughingly describe as “brief strong sex” which is nothing more than a flash of thigh from the eldest student Alicia (Elle Fanning).
But it all gets too much for the sexually-repressed and increasingly-jealous Edwina who after falling for MacBurney’s Mills & Boon seduction (“In all my travels, I’ve never come across such a delicate beauty.”) resorts to violence after finding him in bed with one her students. The result of which renders him bedridden and, ironically, both she and the rest of the household unridden. He doesn’t have a leg to stand on (a lame joke once you’ve seen the movie). And they make a stand with (remember those fun guys?) mushrooms.
Based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel of the same name which was adapted for the screen in the early seventies with Clint Eastwood in the role ofMacBurney, writer and director Sophia Coppola (who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Lost In Translation) focuses not so much on the man’s point of view but his affect on his female admirers. As epitomised by one of the best scenes in the film when they try to top one another’s one-liners. “I hope you like apple pie,” says Alicia as he raises a fork to his mouth. A seductive euphemism which prompts cries of “I cooked it”, “It’s from my recipe”, “I picked the apples” and the clincher: “It’s my favourite too.” Joyous!
A word I would also use to describe the meticulously framed cinematography of Philippe Le Sour who uses a perfect mix of darkness and candlelight to portray both the claustrophobia of seminary life and the clandestine nature of the love triangle going on tetrahedron; the synthesised score by the French band Phoenix which is sparing but chillingly effective; and the screenplay by Coppola which uses pregnant silence and loaded looks to great effect to portray the increasing sexual tension. Sure, there are no fireworks. But this is one slow-burner that lives up to its name!