Cold Mountain

Laura Clifford 
Cold Mountain
Robin Clifford 
Bred for a cultural urban life, Ada Munroe (Nicole Kidman, "The Human Stain") is called by her father, the Reverend Munroe (Donald Sutherland, "The Italian Job") to his North Carolina farm just before the advent of the Civil War.  Coaxed by neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker, "The Cider House Rules"), who says that any man she speaks to will clear Sally's top field for the privilege, Ada brings refreshment to shy laborer W.P. Inman (Jude Law, "Road to Perdition").  The war interrupts the beginning of a courtship, though, and Ada and Inman suffer many hardships as Inman struggles to make his way back to "Cold Mountain."

The highly anticipated "Cold Mountain," adapted from the celebrated novel by Charles Frazier, arrives after a lengthy and much publicized Romanian shoot (the breakdown of Jude Law's marriage, Kidman's successful lawsuit against papers accusing her of being the cause, Zellweger's romance with costar Jack White of the White Stripes) and disappoints.  Essentially, "Cold Mountain" is the extended delay of the consummation of an attraction between its very pretty stars, goosed up with episodic appearances by high profile supporting players and a very good performance from Rene Zellweger.  Those who found writer/director Anthony Minghella's "The English Patient" lovely to look at but ponderous and overstated are likely to feel the same way about "Cold Mountain."

The film begins excitingly, with a breathtaking recreation of the Battle of Petersburg that doesn't spare the blood and mud.  After the Yankees successfully mine Southern trenches from underneath, resulting in a spectacular and brutal explosion, Minghella brings us into the horror of hand to hand combat.  Meanwhile, back home in Cold Mountain, the former land owner Teague (Ray Winstone, "Sexy Beast") has formed a Home Guard with right hand man Bosie (Charlie Hunnam, "Nicholas Nickleby"), but instead of protecting home turf they terrorize residents in their relentless pursuit of deserters and those that harbor them.

Ada's situation immediately becomes precarious.  Her beloved father dies, leaving her penniless and alone on a farm she's ill-suited to tend.  Embarrassed by the town's charity, she scrapes by, a ghostly presence who continuously writes to Inman, begging him to return.  The ever resourceful Sally sends Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger, "Chicago") to Ada to help her run the farm. Rustic Ruby announces that she's no servant, takes stock of the place and begins to toughen up Ada with manual labor like a Scarlett O'Hara who never left Tara.  In turn, Ada softens Ruby with music and literature.  Teague, who fancies Ada for himself, keeps a watchful eye on the ladies and they and their neighbor Sally will suffer his villainy as their menfolk desert a losing cause.

One of those men is Inman, who is read Ada's letter while recuperating from a bullet wound in a makeshift Yankee hospital.  During his long trek home, Inman will encounter a hedonistic clergyman (Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Owning Mahowney") obsessed with his regularity, a devious backwoods farmer (Giovanni Ribisi, "Lost in Translation") living with a bevy of oversexed women, Maddy the goat lady (Eileen Atkins, "The Hours"), a natural philosopher who nurses him back from yet another wound and Sara (Natalie Portman, "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"), the widowed wife of a Confederate soldier with a new baby.  When he finally arrives home, it is to face yet another battle.

Minghella imbues his adaptation with post 9/11 sentiments ('I imagine God is weary of being called down on both sides of an argument' Inman remarks to the Reverend) and John Woo-religious and Sam Raimi-portentous bird imagery (Inman catches a white dove inside Munroe's chapel, Ada sees a vision of Inman returning amidst flying crows in Sally's well), but his central story rings hollow.  Even Ruby's reconciliation with her musical father Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson, "Gangs of New York") feels false, his former abusiveness forgotten after a display of roguish charm and a few songs.  The film's conclusion and epilogue are a particularly egregious collection of cliches.

All of this is very beautifully photographed by John Seale ("The English Patient")(a wonderful shot of Ada playing the piano on the back of a cart as it travels down a country road is almost surreal), and Dante Ferretti's ("The Age of Innocence") production design rings true, but costume designer Ann Roth ("The Talented Mr. Ripley") can't resist turning the life-hardened Ada out like she's just left a Ralph Lauren boutique for her reunion with Inman.

Law's performance is almost too restrained.  Kidman fairs better, doing a particularly nice job of genteel inebriation after celebrating Christmas, but she's completely upstaged by the comic antics of Zellweger, whose tough pluck and prickle give "Cold Mountain" a much needed dose of warmth and entertainment.  The huge supporting cast has many standouts.  Kathy Baker has a strong arc as Sally.  Natalie Portman throws off her Amidala cloak and delivers a really fine portrait of a desperate and lonely woman and Eileen Atkins also makes the most of her limited screen time.  Hoffman is amusing, but this role showcases little but his lack of vanity.  Ethan Suplee (“Remember the Titans”) is touching as Stobrod's not too bright companion Pangle.  The film also features James Gammon ("Life or Something Like It") as Sally's husband Esco, Lucas Black ("Sling Blade") as young soldier Oakley, Melora Walters (“Magnolia”) as Ribisi’s lusty wife Lila and Cillian Murphy ("28 Days") as a Yankee soldier.

"Cold Mountain" may be marketed as a literary adaptation, but in reality it's an artfully presented chick flick.


The town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina is seething with rebellious glee, in 1861, when the Confederate States of America declare war on the anti-slavery Union. This historic moment, the object of joy for most, causes nothing but pain for P.W. Inman (Jude Law) when he finds the woman, Ada Monroe, that he can loveand live with forever but must, instead, go off to war. But, when he is severely wounded in the carnage of the infamous Battle of Petersburg, he makes his way to the only place he can feel safe, “Cold Mountain.”

Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella adapts the National Book Award winning novel by Charles Frazier and brings to the screen a love story that is also about courage, loyalty, revenge and the dangerous world of a country near the end of a crushing civil war.

Beautiful, spoiled Ada has moved to rural Cold Mountain with her preacher father (Donald Sutherland) from her genteel life in Virginia. She spies a handsome young man, Inman, and figures out a way to meet him. Immediately, they are both smitten and a budding romance begins but the herald of war will tear them and their newborn love apart. Inman looks back from the sea of gray uniforms for one last look at his love.

Jump ahead to 1864 and the months long siege at Petersburg, Virginia is about to, quite literally, blow apart when Union troops dig a 586-foot tunnel directly under the Confederate trenches and pack the mine with explosives. The ensuing blast rips through the rebel line and creates a crater spanning 130 feet. The Yankee troops, not the ones trained for this attack, flood into the crater and can’t escape. The rebel troops begin a slaughter that will take the lives of 4000 Union soldiers with a loss of 1000 of their own. Inman is one of those wounded in the battle, shot through the neck and, when he can walk, packs up and walks away from the army, heading home. Along the way he meets a bevy of remarkable people – some good and some very bad.

Back home, Ada suffers a tragic loss when her father suddenly dies. Rev. Monroe was not very good with money and Ada has never had to fend for herself. As the war drags on, she scrabbles to survive, even grubbing for potatoes in the frozen ground. Until, one day, when a smart, capable, outspoken drifter, Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), shows up and tells Ada that she’s there to help. Ada begins a journey to a place where she sheds her past helplessness and becomes an able, self-reliant woman.

Inman is the Civil War equivalent of Homer’s Odysseus as he treks across a land bled dry by the ravages of the war. He alternately meets people who offer him kindness, food and care and others who get him drunk in order to collect the bounty imposed on deserters. This is where “Cold Mountain” loses the flow of the book and, instead, provides short episodes that bring in all manner of characters. He falls upon the doorstep of a healer who nurses him back to health. He teams up, for a short time, with a fallen preacher named Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is obsessed, alternately, with hedonistic pleasure and the state of his bowels. They are betrayed by Junior (Giovanni Rabisi), a ribald moonshiner who uses his wife and her sister to seduce deserters, drug them and turn them over to the Home Guard.

After escaping the chain gang, Inman falls upon the home of Sara, a frantic, lonely young woman with a very sick baby and a husband far away at war. She takes him into her home and even seeks chaste comfort in his arms. He saves her from the lustful clutches of renegade Yankee soldiers on a looting spree and continues on his way.

Back at the home front, Ada resists the attention of Teague (Ray Winstone), the head of the local home guard and a martinet who uses his legal power for his own gain. Then, a blast out of Ruby’s past shows up in the form of her long estranged father, Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson), a happy go luck fiddler who shirks any real responsibility. He and his good-natured but dim partner Pangle (Ethan Suplee) are being hunted by Teague and his killer henchman, Bosie (Charlie Hunnman), exercising vigilante justice whenever they want. These physical and symbolic journeys come to a head when Inman and Ada get together once again after years apart. Their reunion is steeped in hope and tragedy.

Jude Law never gets beyond two dimensions in his depiction of Inman. The man is soft spoken and humble and wants nothing more to return home and hold the woman he has loved, unrequited, for years. But Law is a bit too taciturn and I never embrace the emotions of his character. Nicole Kidman has the ethereal beauty (captured lovingly by lenser John Seale) of Ada but she, too, fails to give much dimension to the woman.

Renee Zellweger gives a solid, articulated performance as the feisty, capable Ruby. She comes on like gangbusters and does not let up once. With her ever-updating list of rules, she helps educate Ada in worldlier and less academic ways but also shows herself to be intelligent, too. I would put the actress on the short list for support attention.

The plethora of character actors playing mostly cameo roles is an embarrassment of riches. From veteran thespians Donald Sutherland, Kathy Baker, James Gammon, Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson to a gaggle of young actors like Natalie Portman, Eileen Atkins, Charlie Hunnman and Jena Malone, “Cold Mountain” does not lack for talent. The episodic nature of the film never really allows any of the characters to develop into anything substantial, though.

Techs are good with Seale doing an exemplary job overall and, in particular, with the Battle of the Crater sequence. Costume designer Ann Roth recreates the look of the period dress from the genteel elegance of silk skirts and flowered bonnets to the rough spun clothes of the rebel troops and the blue serge uniforms of the Union soldiers. Production design, staged primarily in Romania under the guidance of oft Oscar nominated Dante Ferretti, gives the film a realistic look though the privations suffered at the home front are glossed over in favor of building Ada’s character.

I was quite taken with Charles Frazier’s introspective look at life during the Civil War and the individual will to survive. I fell into Inman’s journey as he trekked along to his ultimate destiny. Anthony Minghella changed the story into a series of vignettes showing good people as good and bad people as bad with little shading. It is a rich looking film with a wonderful performance by Renee Zellweger. I give it a B-.

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