COLD MOUNTAIN (director/writer: Anthony Minghella; screenwriter: from the book by Charles Frazier; cinematographer: John Seale; editor: Walter Murch; music: Gabriel Yared; cast: Jude Law (Inman), Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe), Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes), Donald Sutherland (Reverend 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), Charlie Hunnam (Bosie), Jena Malone (Ferry Girl), Ethan Suplee (Pangle), Jack White (Georgia), Lucas Black (Oakley), Jay Tavare (Swimmer), Melora Walters (Lila); Runtime: 155; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sydney Pollack/William Horberg/Albert Berger/ Ron Yerxa; Miramax; 2003)
“There are certain weaknesses that it cannot overcome.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Anthony Minghella’s (“The English Patient”/”The Talented Mr. Ripley”) lushly made anti-war Civil War epic is based on the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier, and is stunningly photographed by John Seale (it was filmed in, of all places, Romania) and seamlessly edited by the gifted Walter Murch. The diverting original music of hillbilly fiddle and banjo tunes were provided by Jack White of the White Stripes. The film reminded me in its sweeping historical gestures and elegant star-crossed love story of Gone With The Wind, albeit a PC version with updated views on slavery and the war. Though the film itself was grounded in filmmaking styles of the past, when old-fashioned concepts of sex and love were adhered to–just like during the time of the American Civil War. The sensitive lead character, Jude Law, expresses the film’s sentiments about war after being wounded in battle: “Any fool can follow a flag and a lie.”
But though this is both a sure-fire crowd pleaser and an intelligently made film, a so-called high-brow mainstream artsy film clearly made for the Oscars and to tug at the heartstrings, there are certain weaknesses that it cannot overcome. Everything seemed staged, including its one big despairing love emotion that hung over the entire story. A story that focused less on the war and its deadly battles or on slavery or on the political issues that led to the war, but entirely on a laconic down-to-earth Cold Mountain, N.C., nice guy farmer named Inman (Law) and his unswerving love for the cultured fashion magazine-like pretty daughter of the ailing new minister (Donald Sutherland) from Charleston, the ideal Southern belle, Ada Monroe (Kidman). They hardly have time to get to know one another before the war starts and practically all the young Southern patriots in this North Carolina town gleefully join to fight for the cause. With just one shared kiss between them and an exchange of tintypes, both have fallen madly in love and vow to wait for the war to end to renew their romance. It used as its Southern society model the same movie pablum that has been handed-down by overly romantic Civil War tales dating back to the days when Hollywood first came into existence.
The film opens on July 1864 during the bloody siege of Petersburg and goes into a flashback from the present to show how the relationship started between Inman and Ada, whom he met three years ago when she first moved to Cold Mountain. When that is established the film follows how Inman and Ada are filled with love for each other and can’t wait for their reunion to make their love official in a biblical sense, as the film intercuts between the two to show the hardships they are undergoing. Inman was later on wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg and after healing at the hospital becomes disillusioned with the war and deserts the Confederacy and their lost cause, something he can be shot for. Meanwhile Ada is a fish out of water living deprived of her usual luxuries on her dad’s rural farm, and things only worsen when dad dies and she’s left hopelessly alone as the farm becomes rundown after she pulls a noblesse oblige gesture and lets the slaves go. The only men left are the aged farmers and the villainous Home Guard led by an evil Captain Teague (Winstone). These ruffians are shown in the same bad light as the Northern Army, as they harass the locals and unduly threaten them under the auspices of the Confederate ideals. To Ada’s rescue comes an energetic motormouth drifter named Ruby (Zellweger), who spouts practical backwoods cliches and moves in as an equal to her superior and soon manages to get the farm functioning. Ruby’s Method Acting requires her to try and steal every scene she’s in and to squint her eyes and groan and pull her face tight when she goes into her annoying homily mode. Ada’s forced Southern accent and constant play for the camera, is only topped by her partner’s even more forced actions to take home a Supporting Actress Oscar. These two Southern opposites were about as tasty as grits in their overacting performances, which left me starving for some authentic franks and beans. It should also be noted that this film employs many British actors in major roles, which doesn’t hurt or help.
All this outpouring of emotional love becomes paramount and the war scenario secondary, as the tension builds to Inman slowly walking back to North Carolina to be with the girl he hardly knows. In the meantime, she fights off poverty and learns how to do practical things like make coffee, plant crops, and fire a gun.
Inman comes across a colorful hypocritical rascal minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who knocked up a slave woman and can’t deal with it in a Christian way until Inman shows her some humanity, and the preacher and Inman go on together as fellow deserters. But they run into a backwoods Southern family who set them up for the local Home Guard to capture them and put them in chains, but Inman escapes when Northern soldiers come upon their party. Now alone and wounded again, Inman is patched up by a reclusive elderly backwoods lady and treks on undaunted to his dreamy Ada. Starving, he comes upon a remote log cabin home of a noble young Southern lady named Sara (Portman) and her child. They spend the night together in chaste embraces, and he pays her kindness back the next day by taking care of three renegrade Northern soldiers who horribly threatened her child and were about to rape and rob her.
Meanwhile Ruby’s long lost drifter dad (Brendan Gleeson), a roguish fiddler traveling with two other musical companions, the slow-witted but good-natured Pangle (Suplee) and the future husband of Ruby, Georgia (Jack White), stumble upon Ruby at Ada’s farm. After two hours or so, Ada and Inman reunite in the snow-covered mountains to her surprise. You see her neighbor Sally has a magical wishing well on her farm and Ada looked down it and saw the future, and it indicated a dark return for Inman.
With the return of the wandering soldier, the film reminded many of either Joyce’s Ulysses or the Greek drama The Odyssey. But this filmed lacked the lyrical drama those stories evoked, and the romance story that was supposed to sizzle always felt artificial and whenever the lovers were together nothing about them seemed hot. They always seemed to be acting, and never brought out anything spontaneous from the heart that showed they were in love. What the film was good at dealing with was the breakdown in law and order and chaos of the war, as shown by how dangerous the beautiful landscape had become and how the unruly Home Guard and other marauders were stealing their way through those bloody times. The romance story was hardly moving, as in comparison GWTW’s Gable and Leigh had more sparks to their fling than this frustrated couple could ever muster whether together or touching each other’s tintypes.
REVIEWED ON 12/29/2003 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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