Cold Mountain

December, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Anthony Minghella

Starring:Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Hunnam, Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi, Donald Sutherland, Melora Walters, Jack White, and Ray Winstone

Despite the occasional exception, (Mystic River being this year's best example) film's adapted from best selling novels rarely make the transition to the screen with the grace, power and impact they possess in written form. The broader the scope of a literary work, the tougher the assignment; paring away any novel's narrative range and capacity for evocative detail requires a screenwriter who’s both insightful and gifted. British director Anthony Minghella, (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) based this film on Charles Frazier's unexpectedly popular novel of the same name. It features Jude Law and Nicole Kidman as lovers struggling to reunite amid the chaos of the Confederacy's dissolution in the waning days of the Civil War; they're supported by some of the best character actors working in movies today--Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Giovanni Ribisi, Nicole Portman, Eileen Atkins and Ray Winstone. The battle scenes pulse with rattling vitality and the continuity of its complex storyline plays out with pleasing clarity. But the sum of the parts, alas, do not make a compelling whole; Mountain teases the audience with a fascinating premise and bits of intriguing work, but in the end winds up as yet another overlong, overblown and over-hyped costume epic.

Like so many romantic stories, this one focuses on an improbable pair of lovers fated to be separated--in this case, by the fortunes of war. Kidman plays Ada, the spinster daughter of a Charleston preacher (Sutherland) who has moved them to a new church in the mountains of North Carolina for his heath. Upon her arrival in the small town of Cold Mountain, Ada falls for Inman (Law) whose soulful eyes and taciturn manner first intrigue and then enchant her. But it's the spring of 1861, and the storm clouds of war already litter the horizon. Inman signs up as an infantryman, in what he's assured will be a conflict of only a month's duration and goes off to fight out of a sense of obligation to friends and neighbors rather than political conviction. But the war proves stubborn; it won't end, nor will it permit a lessening of the incomprehensible brutality on the battlefield. When Inman finally realizes the South's cause is lost, he responds to one of Ada's plaintive letters by deserting his regiment and starting the long trek back to his home on Cold Mountain and her waiting arms.  

Nicole Kidman's current films, (The Human Stain & the one under review) have been adapted from highly regarded novels, yet neither has earned critical acclaim in their filmed versions. She's Hollywood's version of Julia Roberts as a dramatic actress; the public seems to want both these women to succeed in their professional work, Kidman by taking the high road of dramatic personas and Roberts the low one of screen comedy, but both attract audiences with the same sense of loyalty. Mountain offers Kidman a part perfectly suited to her fan's appetites; the gentile woman of social grace, put-upon by adversity, whose inner strength allows her to emerge from adversity a better, more focused and stronger person.

Inman doesn't say much, choosing to allow his actions to speak on his behalf. As he flees through the war-scarred southern countryside, he's forced to battle pursuing Rebel soldiers charged with capturing fugitive members from the Confederancy’s ranks as well as civilians who will benefit financially by his return to duty. His odyssey becomes the occasion for meeting a polyglot group of fellow southerners who alternately help and hinder his progress. Meanwhile, Ada tries to hold on to the farm her now-deceased father has willed her; she's aided in this effort by Ruby, (Renee Zellweger) a round-faced country girl who teaches Ada the rudiments of farm management in exchange for room and board. Long months turn into seemingly endless years; the women cling determinedly to Ada's impoverished farm while Inman survives gunshot wounds and knifings during his encounters with the Rebel and Union soldiers intent on doing him in, responding with a good bit of mayhem in return. The lovers finally reunite in the last days of the war, only to be threatened by unscrupulous government agents anxious to squeeze the last bit of wartime graft out of Cold Mountain's desperate citizens…

Law, a fine actor whose performance in previous films suggests considerable skill, isn't given much to do here except react violently to the events unfolding around him. Kidman delivers one of her patented turns as a shy, withdrawn woman who flowers under adversities not of her choosing. But Zellweger flounders as Ruby; with a bizarre accent, (out of Hee Haw by way of the Grand 'Ole Opry), her depiction of a simple, no-nonsense working class woman forced to look out for herself fails to generate an ounce of credibility. The members of the large supporting cast, given only episodic parts to play, don't fair much better; I can't remember a film this year which features more good actors wasted in roles so sketchy that nothing of real value can be extracted from them--a fault of the director, not his cast. And the vignettes that Minghella constructs to introduce them, (Hoffman as a randy & racist preacher, Ribisi as the head of a sexually twisted family making a backwoods living by ensnaring deserters, Portman as a violently vulnerable mother with a sick infant and Atkins as a reclusive native healer) serve only to prolong Inman's journey - - and the movie - - without adding anything of substance to its content.

There's a basic continuity problem too; in shifting the story between Inman's wandering return and Ada's increasingly marginal grip on her farm, Minghella distorts his story's timeframe, since Ada's growing self-reliance in response to her situation obviously takes place over a much longer period of time than Inman's journey home requires. The director's decision to inter-cut these plotlines may make for good dramatic balance, but they subtly undermine his painstaking efforts at creating a realistic view of this tumultuous period in America’s history.

Minghella gives his audience its money's worth, in length at least; at 2 and 1/2 plus hours of running time and accompanied  with a production budget reportedly in excess of $80 million, the director has delivered an epic. 

Unfortunately, it’s a decidedly flawed one.  

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