Director Anthony Minghella specializes in adapting complex novels for the big screen. He turned the allegedly unfilmable The English Patient into an Oscar-winning Best Picture. For his follow-up, he found both critical and popular success with his adaptation of Patricia Highsmithís The Talented Mr. Ripley. Minghellaís latest project is Cold Mountain, the film version of Charles Frazierís award-winning novel. Again, he takes a literary work and turns it into first-class cinema.
Set in the final days of the Civil War, the film stars Jude Law as Inman, a soldier for the South who clings to a picture of a beautiful young woman. When Inman is seriously injured during a surprise attack, he flashes back three years earlier, right before he left for war. The woman in the picture is Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), who has just moved to the tiny town of Cold Mountain with her minister father (Donald Sutherland). Ada and Inman are immediately attracted to one another, but donít openly express it until shortly afterward, when he is called off to battle.
During his absence, Ada writes Inman letters expressing how much she misses him. In one of the letters, she begs him to simply pack up and return to her. Once he recuperates sufficiently, Inman decides to desert the army and go home to the woman he barely knows, yet loves. His journey is treacherous, as deserters are being hunted down and killed. Inman finds himself in danger many times. He also meets a fascinating array of characters along the way, from a temptation-riddled priest (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to a lonely war widow (Natalie Portman).
Ada, meanwhile, struggles to hang on back in Cold Mountain. She does not know if Inman has received any of her letters, yet she continues to write them. When her father dies, she finds herself incapable of maintaining their massive estate. She receives help from Ruby (Renee Zellweger), a plucky little thing who tells it like it is and doesnít take grief from anybody. Ada and Ruby develop a strong friendship, and Ruby is able to help Ada learn to do things for herself. Together, they harbor a few deserters, including Rubyís estranged father, a musician named Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson), which puts them in nearly as much danger as Inman is in. A nasty guy named Teague (Ray Winstone) Ė who has aspirations of taking over the town Ė is leading a witch hunt against anyone who helps deserters. He is killing them for committing ďtreason.Ē
Cold Mountain is a film about characters. Frazierís novel has provided many that are interesting, and Minghella has cast solid actors in every role, no matter how big or small. Although the story is about Inmanís journey to get back to Ada, it is the concentration on the side characters that gives the movie its flavor. For example, one of my favorite scenes is the one where Inman, looking for shelter, spends the night at the home of the war widow. The poor woman misses her husband terribly and, in an act of loneliness, requests that Inman chastely share her bed so that she can remember what it felt like when her husband was there. Natalie Portman is in the film for perhaps only ten minutes, but the scene makes an impact. Thatís the way Cold Mountain is: a bunch of recognizable actors come in, do a brief stint as some fascinating person Inman or Ada meet, then wander off. Itís a treat to have so many rich supporting characters.
My other favorite thing performance-wise is Renee Zellweger. Iím a huge fan of the actress, but I admittedly had some reservations about her in this role. The actress is so inherently cute and so modern that I wasnít sure she could pull off a period piece such as this, especially since Ruby is the quintessential tomboy. In reality, Zellweger pulls it off masterfully, in a turn that could well earn her an Oscar nomination and perhaps even the award itself. She perfectly brings out Rubyís no-nonsense style and penchant for cutting to the bottom line. In Zellwegerís hands, Ruby becomes more than just comic relief, (although she certainly provides that); she becomes an important part of the story.
The weak spot in Cold Mountain is the relationship between Ada and Inman. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are both very, very good in this film. They create their characters just as fully as any of the supporting players do. The problem is inherent to the story itself: Inman and Ada barely know each other before he goes to war. The characters share three or four brief scenes before Inman marches off. Only in the final moment of their last pre-war scene do they openly express any emotion for one another. Yet we are to believe that they did nothing but think about each other for three years. We are to believe that she was willing to forgo the chance to meet another man while she waited for him. We are to believe that Inman was willing to desert the army and trek hundreds of miles (on foot, no less) to get back home to her.
Okay, I did believe those things, but I didnít feel them. The film could have used an additional scene or two demonstrating that Ada and Inman were more than just strangers - that there was a fundamental connection between them. Iím not saying the movie should have put them in a serious relationship before the war; Iím simply suggesting that it would have been stronger had it emphasized the unspeakably strong desire they are supposed to have for one another. Because I never felt that, Inmanís journey home had less urgency than it deserved. Now mind you, this does not take away from the quality of the film in any substantial way. I still cared about Inman and Ada. I still wanted him to get home to her. But my investment was more intellectual than emotional. When the two finally see each other again, it should have been induced a tear, or at least a lump in my throat. Again, I cared about what would happen, but I wasnít overcome with emotion like I should have been. This is a small but relevant criticism.
Itís also the only criticism I have of Cold Mountain. Generally speaking, this is a terrific movie. In addition to great performances, the film has breathtaking cinematography, stunning battle reenactments, and a compelling depiction of the Civil Warís effect on the South. Itís the characters that entertained me the most, though. They are uniformly memorable; ask me about the movie five years from now and I bet I will be able to remember Adaís dreamy longing, or Rubyís feisty attitude, or the lusty priest, or the down-home woman who gives Inman a life lesson involving goats. Not many movies have characters you can warm up to the way Cold Mountain does. That makes it a real treasure.
( 1/2 out of four)
Cold Mountain is rated R for violence and sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes.
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