Director : Anthony Minghella
Screenplay : Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Charles Frazier)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Jude Law (Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Donald Sutherland (Rev. Monroe), Ray Winstone (Teague), Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Veasey), Natalie Portman (Sara), Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger), James Gammon (Esco Swanger), Giovanni Ribisi (Junior), Eileen Atkins (Maddy)
At a cost of some $80 million, Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s popular novel Cold Mountain is Miramax’s biggest Oscar-baiting gamble to date. A broad, sprawling, Odyssey-like melodramatic journey set against the backdrop of the horrors of the Civil War, Cold Mountain holds itself up with a sometimes labored studiousness that threatens, but never quite undermines, the inherent power of the story. While the primary narrative is about a Confederate soldier’s determined trek hundreds of miles to reunite with a sweetheart he barely knows, the film really exists in the myriad supporting characters and the way in which their mini-narratives weave a fascinating tapestry about the fallout of warfare and its devastating effects on those on the front lines and those left behind.
The two central characters are Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Moore (Nicole Kidman). Inman is a shy, quiet worker in the small town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina. He meets Ada when she moves to town with her father (Donald Sutherland), an aging minister who is trying to regain his health. They share little more than some apple cider and a passionate kiss before Inman is called off to join the Confederacy. Left on the home front, Ada finds herself in dire straits when her father dies, leaving her—a well-bred, exquisitely dressed, piano-playing city girl—to maintain a farm, something she knows absolutely nothing about.
Ada is saved when her kindly neighbor, Sally (Kathy Baker), sends her some help in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a firecracker of a woman who knows everything that Ada doesn’t and doesn’t mind telling her so. Ruby effectively fills in the manly position vacated by both Inman and Ada’s father, wringing chicken necks, building fences, and milking cows, but she asks for no payment other than room and board. She and Ada get to be not only close friends, but literal partners who support each other while the war rages.
Meanwhile, after surviving one of the Civil War’s most horrific battles, Inman heeds Ada’s call in one of her letters to come home. So, he leaves a military hospital and deserts the army, beginning his long journey back to the mountains of North Carolina. Along the way, he comes across a broad range of characters who represent different aspects of late 19th-century America and the toil the Civil War enacted on them. In each instance, Inman becomes a savior of sorts, which goes a long way toward bolstering his character who, as depicted in Minghella’s screenplay, we known little about.
He saves a pregnant slave girl from being killed by the misguided minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who impregnated her, helps a poor farmer (Giovanni Ribisi) clear a dead cow out of his river only to be set up for capture by the army, and stands between a grieving young widow (Natalie Portman) and a group of desperate Yankee soldiers who want to steal her food and rape her. Essentially, Inman’s journey is a series of tests in which both his will to return to Ada and his decency toward his fellow human beings are severely challenged. Jude Law plays Inman with a weary resignation that at times borders on the despondent; we can feel his anguish and his exhaustion, and his continual escapes from the clutches of death (starting with his unlikely survival in the film’s opening battle) both ennoble him into a kind of resilient superhero and guarantee his basic humanity.
Inman’s journey is continuously intercut with Ada’s life back in Cold Mountain, which is constantly threatened by Teague (Ray Winstone), a military bully who abuses his orders to seek out and kill any deserters who might be hiding out in the area. Unfortunately, this includes Ruby’s estranged father, Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson), a former cruel drunk who has found redemption through music and wants to make up for lost time with his daughter. The slow thaw between them is one of the film’s most affecting emotional turns, much more so than the distanced romance between Inman and Ada, which, because of their separation, becomes more ethereal than emotional.
While primarily a romance, Cold Mountain is a brutally violent film that speaks as much to humankind’s inhumanity as it does to the redeeming powers of pure love. Throughout the film, we are treated to various atrocities committed in the name of victory, including a harrowing sequence in which Teague and his goons descend on a family they suspect of harboring their deserter sons and torture them until the truth comes out. The film’s violence is tempered somewhat by the fact that Teague’s brutality borders on cartoonish villainy; we become so intent on seeing him get his comeuppance in the end that the underlying theme about the effects of war are distanced in favor of easy emotional catharsis.
Although it will likely garner scores of Oscar nominations, Cold Mountain is not nearly the masterpiece it aspires to be. It is too self-consciously despondent and wrapped up in its sense of great tragedy. It is, though, an absolutely ravishing film to watch; cinematographer John Seale (who also shot Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley) gives the film a rapturous beauty, even in its most violent moments. The mountains of Romania were used to stand in for the Appalachians, and their slightly otherworldly quality evokes a mythic resonance the film might otherwise have lacked. Yet, for all that beauty, the film is always at its best in the gritty details. When Minghella moves away from the grandiosity of its all and observes the pains of life in the faces of his characters, he gets much closer to the truth of the material than all the painterly vistas combined.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick