Cold Mountain (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's not often that, when the primary thread of a movie fails, the secondary storylines are compelling enough to make the overall experience a positive one. However, that occurs with Cold Mountain, a Civil War era romance where the love affair fizzles, but the episodic approach allows the narrative to breathe. The end result is that the film has more to offer than the tepid Nicole Kidman/Jude Law pairing. There are a lot of things to like about Cold Mountain, but those expecting director Anthony Minghella to recapture the tragic, romantic enchantment of The English Patient will be disappointed.

The second half of Cold Mountain is significantly better than the first. Writer/director Minghella has the unenviable task of cramming a lot of background information (done via flashbacks) into the first 60 minutes, as well as getting things off to an explosive start. While we are provided with all the necessary information, the underlying feelings are regrettably absent. The central motivating force for the main characters - an unquenchable love - comes across more like a writer's conceit than something elemental that exists between these two. We know that Inman (Law) and Ada (Kidman) are in love because the movie tells us so, not because we are given a compelling reason to believe it. Consequently, although we end up caring about the characters on an individual basis, the question of whether they are given a chance to re-connect is of secondary importance.

The movie opens in 1864, with the South well on its way to losing the Civil War. After recovering from a devastating injury, infantryman Inman decides to desert and make his way back to his home town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, where he hopes to have a life with Ada, the preacher's daughter. It has been three years since they last saw each other, and he doesn't know for sure whether she is waiting for him. They hardly know each other - their interaction was brief, but left a lasting impression. However, the trek back to Cold Mountain proves to be an arduous one. Along the way, Inman meets a number of odd people, some of whom are interested in helping, and others who see him only as a way to make a profit.

Meanwhile, Ada has been waiting. Following the death of her father (Donald Sutherland), she has let the farm lapse into disarray. Enter Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a plain-speaking freespirit who offers to help Ada rebuild the farm in exchange for meals and lodging. A bargain is struck and the two begin a mutually beneficial partnership that develops into a friendship. But troubles lurk. The head of the local "home guards" (Ray Winstone, who does evil as well as anyone), a group empowered to kill deserters, wants Ada and her land, and Ruby's father (Brendan Gleeson) pays his daughter an unexpected visit.

Cold Mountain receives a much needed boost of energy with the introduction of Zellweger's Ruby, an event which occurs just before the end of the first hour. She is flamboyant and energetic - two characteristics that do not apply to either Kidman or Law. While it's unfair to impugn the two leads, since both do adequate jobs, Zellweger constantly forces Kidman into the background by the forcefulness of her performance. Law suffers the same fate at the hand of numerous supporting players, including Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a philandering minister), Natalie Portman (as a young mother who is victimized by Union soldiers), and Aileen Atkins (as a loner in the woods who helps Inman).

Cold Mountain's strengths lie in its vignettes. Inman and Ada's paths to their reunion are broken into various episodes. Some of these are quite good, and even the least impressive retains some degree of interest. It's fair to say in Cold Mountain's case that the journey counts more than what happens once the destination is reached. In fact, one could make a legitimate argument that the quality keeping this movie from greatness is the lack of fire in Inman and Ada's relationship. Give them the chemistry of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca (or even Fiennes and Scott-Thomas in The English Patient), and this would have been an unforgettable motion picture.

One thing that cannot be denied is the effectiveness of the film's look. This is a gorgeous film to watch, with deserved credit given to cinematographer John Seale, who is an accomplished veteran behind the camera (he has shot about three-dozen pictures, including The English Patient, Gorillas in the Mist, and Witness). Although the big battle near the beginning of the film has its share of logical flaws, it is photographed in such a manner that you almost lose yourself in the spectacle of the moment. And the Romanian countryside is a workable double for mid-19th century North Carolina.

Cold Mountain was adapted from the long, complex novel by Charles Frazier, and clearly proved to be a challenge for Minghella to capture on film. The movie has its share of structural problems, and may be a little longer than seems necessary, but it rarely lost my attention. I would not place this in the top echelon of end-of-the-year motion pictures, but it's certainly a successful adaptation, features numerous memorable performances (mostly by the supporting players), and is worth a post-holiday expenditure of time and money.

Cold Mountain (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 2:26
U.S. Release Date: 2003-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1