Nicole Kidman
Jude Law
Renee Zellweger
Donald Sutherland
Brendan Gleason
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Natalie Portman
Kathy Baker
James Gammon
Giovanni Ribisi

Anthony Minghella




Time: 155 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama/War/Romance

Won Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Zellweger). Nominations for Best Actor (Law), Cinematography, Film Editing, Song and Score.

While there's no doubt in my mind that Anthony Minghella was the right choice to direct Charles Frazier's award-winning Civil War novel, the experience of actually sitting through this soul-numbing romantic epic left me feeling more exhausted than exhilarated. The story, as conceived by Frazier, is a struggle against evil, a fight for survival and a gripping statement about the power of hope in an unstable world. It's a complex journey that entranced me from beginning to end, slowing drawing me into its' dark and dangerous universe where anything can and does happen on the road home.

The film attempts to do justice to the emotions brought forth in the novel, but isn't completely successful. Telling a tale of this magnitude and length is bound to lose something in the translation. Instead of weaving a coherent tapestry of plot and emotions, it jumps from vignette to vignette, rushing to impose every type of injustice and misfortune upon our lovers who are just struggling to reach the end of the war and finally begin their future together. Frazier's conceit in forcing his leads – Inman (Law), a confederate soldier and Ada (Kidman), a Southern belle – to be apart for most of the story works much better on the page, giving the action a constant thread of longing and desperation to follow no matter where the plot takes them in between their first and last meetings.

Their courtship onscreen seems rushed and inconsequential, leaving one somewhat cold to their supposed feelings of undying love. There's little doubt they make a distinct impression on one another (they are of course the most attractive people around), but it's hard to believe one passionate kiss would be enough to sustain anyone for three years of absence. Clearly, Ada and Inman have no control over the situation and since the war interrupts their courtship, those stolen moments become their only connection with a normal life. When faced with the brutality and horror of war, as portrayed more than accurately here, Inman's love for the beauty, gentility and intelligence of Ada is easy to understand.

"They kept trying to put me in the ground but I wasn't ready."

He may not be a man of many words, but Law makes sure his every emotion is clearly readable across his gorgeous face. He gives a subtle and devastating portrayal of a morally bankrupt man who's suffered enough and just wants to regain a small piece of the kind and honorable person he once was. His journey back to Cold Mountain is one racked with more pain, torture and heartbreak as he treks across a land festering with hatred and violence. It's only his memories of Ada that empower him to continue to put one foot in front of the other. That he almost succumbs to the charms of other females while on his journey home only showcases his tortured humanity and his yearning for the love and comfort that's been missing in his life for so long. That she's not worth the trouble never occurs to him, though it sure did to me. That she's a beacon of hope and desire for him is not a stretch considering the hellish nature of his existence as a soldier. I'm sure her struggles to survive during the war with no money and few worthwhile skills were portrayed accurately, yet I didn't really care what happened to her.

Kidman's performance is limp and unconvincing throughout much of the film, encouraging more wayward thoughts about her wan beauty than about her character's troubles. She's too awkward and uptight in the scenes with Law, making her pursuit of him seem more like a game than an irresistable passion. He's certainly the most attractive man available, but there has to be greater reasons than that for declaring one's eternal love and devotion. This isn't exactly Kidman's fault. Ada is a fairly shallow creature that only becomes more interesting once she sheds her pretensions and realizes the world is not a whirl of music and parties, which happens long after Inman's departure. Unfortunately, her transformation into a woman who can take care of herself – thanks to the help of the relentless worker bee Ruby (Zellweger) – isn't all that effective either. Personally, I wouldn't place my life in her hands, regardless of all the training she's received. That being said, she did manage to convince me of her desperate loyalty to Inman, though mostly because his return is the only thing she has left to hope for. Without any other family, she's left adrift and latches on to the idea of a future with Inman to give her a reason to open her eyes each morning.

This would all be terribly depressing if it weren't for the sudden appearance of Ruby. Her character brings a breathe of fresh air to the proceedings, giving one a break from the ponderous pining of Ada and the mournful melancholy of Inman. Zellweger's performance is a little too spunky for my tastes, but if anything, she leaves no doubt that Ruby's a gal who can take care of herself. She definitely brings an unquenchable spirit and energy to the film that makes all the loss and horror bearable. Once her deadbeat dad (Gleason) appears on Ada's doorstep, the cartoonish aspects of her persona fall away, giving life to a real human being – one clearly torn between love and hatred for the man who raised her – and the film is all the better for it. The ladies' encounters with Teague (Winstone), the sleazy and violent head of the local Home Guard, hold no surprises, but are still creepy due to his obvious unscrupulous intentions. The war is just too abstract to be a worthwhile villain, so Teague and his gang of ruthless rascals will have to do. His ever-watchful presence gives the gals and their men someone tangible to fight and gives the film a touch of suspense and terror on the home front. There's nothing like a little danger to break up all those scenes of fence building and friendship.

While Ada waits and Ruby builds, Inman walks, meeting all sorts of people along the way. Some help his cause, others just give him more grief. The one who truly stands out is Natalie Portman's widowed single mother. Her scenes with Inman are devastatingly poignant, as they each try to gain a few moments of solace and tenderness, which makes her revenge on a Union soldier who tried to harm her and her baby all the more chilling. This sequence illuminates more than any other in the film the toll the war took on the lives and morals of every person forced to live through those times. By focusing on the grander picture – the love story – the film loses a great deal of depth and history that made the novel so engrossing. However, on the flip side it distills their yearning and solitude into a mixture of pure heartache that, like the novel, settles into your bones.

This was not an easy time in which to live and the story pulls no punches. Even though the lovers finally do find themselves in each other's arms, their ultimate fate is determined long before their second kiss. All out war rarely allows for happily ever after. This is a love story for realists. Some may find the ending too tragic or too pat, but as in the novel, their love is shown to have a greater purpose that ultimately brings healing to both characters. While the pacing is a bit choppy and the story occasionally shallow, the cinematography and art direction are visually stunning, bringing this era and the locations brilliantly to life. It will make you glad you were born a century later. Despite its' flaws, COLD MOUNTAIN is a compelling, first-rate production that really leaves you with a clear understanding of the nature and ramifications of war on the men who are forced to fight and the women left behind to wait for them. Do yourself a favor and read the novel first, which will fill in the gaps.

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