A likely Oscar favourite, Cold Mountain is the latest film from Anthony Minghella, director of The English Patient and The Talented Mister Ripley. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger star in this epic romance set in the last days of the American Civil War. Review by Kevin O’Reilly
Sixty years after Gone With The Wind, the American Civil War continues to prove fertile ground for Hollywood. It serves as the violent backdrop for Cold Mountain, an ambitious, two-and-a-half-hour blend of western, southern gothic, war film, odyssey and love story based on a highly regarded novel by Charles Frazier. It’s a film that wants to be a lot of things, as you would expect from writer / director Anthony Minghella, whose last two movies were The Talented Mister Ripley and The English Patient. With its literary pedigree and Oscar winners in front of and behind the camera, Cold Mountain is sure to snatch a lot of gold statues in the upcoming awards season even though what’s on the screen is little more than an extremely well-made potboiler.
Its opening is at once visually impressive and dramatically awkward. Brutal, realistic civil war battle scenes are intercut with flashbacks to a cutesy romance between strong, silent Inman (Jude Law in a sweaty undershirt) and blushing belle Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman in a bonnet). The couple met when Ada and her preacher father (Donald Sutherland) moved to Inman’s idyllic hillside town in North Carolina – the Cold Mountain of the title. Before their brief, tentative romance could blossom, Inman enlisted in the Confererate army along with most of the other men from the town and marched off to fight the “War of Northern Aggression”, as the Civil War was known in the South. Despite the occasional grumble about fighting for rich slave owners, most of these Southern boys wanted to whup some arrogant Yankee ass. Of course it wasn’t to be. Inman soon learned that war is hell and the Civil War was more hellish than most.
Once we’re past the flashbacks, things pick up. Inman has been wounded and, while in a military hospital, he receives a letter from Ada begging him to return. Her father has died and she’s found herself alone and penniless, her sheltered upbringing leaving her unprepared to fight for survival. For Inman, returning to Cold Mountain is a risky prospect. Even though the war is reaching an end and it’s clear that the Confederate cause is doomed, the penalty for desertion is still death. Yet he can think of little else other than Ada and so he escapes the hospital and sets off on a long, dangerous trek home, looking out for Yankee looters and the Confederate Home Guard, which has orders to shoot deserters on sight. In the meantime, Ada’s circumstances have improved since she took on as a partner the tough, straight-talking Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger). The two women struggle together to turn their land into a working farm and they soon become close friends. But Ada’s also made an enemy of a mean-spirited local named Teague (Ray Winstone), who leads the Cold Mountain branch of the Home Guard and uses his authority to terrorise the town. She and Inman will have to survive everything fortune can throw at them before they can be reunited.
Unfortunately this central love story is one of Cold Mountain’s weak points. Jude Law and Nicole Kidman aren’t given enough screen time together to develop any chemistry and the scenes they do share are straight out of Mills and Boon. The two stars are also saddled with the least interesting roles in the film. Ada grows in a predictable way from daddy’s girl to strong independent woman while Inman is a bit of a blank from start to finish. We’re told that he’s been changed by war but the way Law plays him, he’s quiet to begin with and he’s quiet later. What emotion and colour there is comes mainly from the supporting cast. Renée Zellweger brings a welcome dose of fiery humour to the party. Her relationship with her repentant thug of a father (Brendan Gleeson) carries more emotional weight than the central Jude / Nicole romance because we see a father and daughter, not two Hollywood sex symbols. Kathy Baker, a dependable character actor, brings more much-needed warmth as a store owner who takes pity on Ada.
There are a few too many guest stars filling out the smaller roles. For every one who brings something to the film, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman as a less than godly preacher, there are two who merely make you think, “Hey, there’s Giovanni Ribisi!” or “Isn’t that guy in the White Stripes?”. Even if they all had the best of intentions – maybe they loved the book or wanted to work with Anthony Minghella – guest stars belong in films like The Cannonball Run and Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. In a serious drama, they’re distracting and they emphasise Cold Mountain’s episodic nature. Then there are the accents. The American Southerner ranks with the British Cockney as one of the easiest accents to caricature and one of the hardest to imitate convincingly. By casting non-American actors in most of the major roles, Minghella is asking for it and indeed he gets it. After a few minutes I’d grown used to Law and Kidman’s drawls but Ray Winstone never comes close to convincing.
Winstone, a great British actor, has a bad time of it here. Teague is the weakest character in the film and his presence succeeds in dumbing the material down a notch or two. Were the Confederate Home Guard really just glorified lynch mobs? Teague and his men shoot children, torture old women and generally behave like sadistic bandits from an early Clint Eastwood film. Like the Union soldiers who show up at the end of Dances With Wolves and the Ku Klux Klansmen in Mississippi Burning, they come across as stock villains from a movie with less intelligence than the one they’re in. You long to see them shot, which would be par for the course in A Fistful Of Dollars but is at odds with Cold Mountain’s otherwise mournful take on war and violence. One thoughtful and powerful scene has us shaking our heads when an enemy soldier who tried to do the right thing is shot in the back by someone we like. Later we’re cheering on the heroes to gun down the bad guys. Minghella is trying to have his cake and eat it.
If Cold Mountain doesn’t work on all the levels it’s aiming for, it does work well enough as entertainment that you can forgive it its flaws. Inman’s perilous journey and Ada’s fight to survive in a hostile town make thoroughly gripping melodrama. Visually the film is magnificent. With the help of an $85 million budget and beautiful cinematography by John Seale, Minghella recreates 1864 in all its glory and all its horror. If anything, it’s the visual splendour of the movie that leads you to expect more from it. For all its ambitions, Cold Mountain is another blockbuster which had all the care in the world lavished on its production and not enough put into the script.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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