Cold Mountain

Review by Adam Blair

Direction and screenplay by Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier

Starring Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger, with Kathy Baker, Donald Sutherland, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, Ray Winstone

Rated R; 155 minutes

I didn't read the novel that Cold Mountain is based on, so I can't tell you how "faithful" the film is to the book - an ultimately useless measure, since each form's pleasures and perils are so distinct. To me, the film is a beautifully shot (by John Seale), melodramatically entertaining piece of claptrap, complete with a noble hero (yummy Jude Law) and a villain (Ray Winstone) so evil I expected him to twirl his mustache as he menaced the pale blonde heroine (Nicole Kidman).

For those who haven't seen the film or read the book, it's an "epic" love story, with Law's Confederate Civil War soldier, Inman, making a Homeric trek back to the titular mountain where dwells Kidman's Ada, a minister's daughter who can embroider and play the piano but lacks basic farming and housekeeping skills. Nevertheless, and despite the lack of even the most rudimentary beauty parlor in 1864 rural North Carolina, Kidman's hair and skin retain their healthy movie-star sheen through 155 minutes of supposedly increasing hardship.

Of course, the woman is astoundingly healthy-looking in virtually all of her performances. Her supposedly consumptive chorine Satine in Moulin Rouge looked less like she was dying and more like she was ready to run the Paris Marathon with a 10-pound weight allowance. And she had to resort to that ugly honker to look convincingly cuckoo as suicidal Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Law, on the other hand, lets himself get roughed up considerably in this film (the battle sequences are horrifically well done). But dirt, an overgrown beard and a gaping wound to his neck only make his blue eyes look more beautiful. I know Law can act (he was authentically sleazy, in different ways, in the awful Artificial Intelligence-A.I. and the pretentious Road to Perdition), but the conception of this character is so square he doesn't really have much to do but look good, act forthrightly and resist the temptations of the flesh. His cold, manipulative but charming Dickie Greenleaf (also under Minghella's direction in The Talented Mr. Ripley) had more layers than this leading part.

Director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella has made such a traditional, Hollywood-glamour-style movie that despite the fact that Inman sustains wounds severe enough to fell an average man several times over, we know he'll survive because he's the star, and he has to get back to Cold Mountain. You see, even though he and Ada have had perhaps a half-dozen conversations and only one impassioned kiss as he marched off to fight the Yankees, they possess a pure, undying love that has given them both the strength to survive. Or, they are by far the best-looking people in the movie, so their incredible attractiveness pulls them together like magnets, repelling the merely ordinary-looking.

It's a nice thought that such a love can sustain two people through incredible strain and hardship, but it's more likely that their relationship was arrested in its idealizing phase and frozen there. The lovers are spared the boring stuff (getting to know each other, marriage, raising kids together, etc.) and instead get to have one night of incredibly passionate nookie that (of course) provides Ada with a souvenir of their eternal, perfect passion.

Watching Cold Mountain, I kept imagining a Carol Burnett Show parody, where Inman treks back through his encounters with a hypocritical, lecherous minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a backwoods yokel who betrays him to the military police (Giovanni Ribisi) and the temptations of a young widow (Natalie Portman), only to find when he finally staggers back that Ada has forgotten all about him and married a traveling salesman. But then that's the romantic in me.

Renée Zellweger's Ruby, a country woman who helps Ada with the practical aspects of working the farm, is amusing and touching, although I kept expecting her and Kidman to move the relationship from female bonding into a lesbian love affair (they do read Wuthering Heights together in bed, so it's not too much of a stretch). But Cold Mountain bounces back to heterosexuality and procreation for its final images, despite the fact that sex (other than Inman and Ada's perfect love) has been depicted as repellently, unglamorously awful through the rest of the movie.

I could have told Nicole this movie wouldn't get her an Oscar nomination, not even the courtesy I-won-last-year-so-you'll-nominate-my-next-performance one, because her character lives to the end of the movie. Law snagged his nomination by playing a character who finally, finally grabs a dirt nap. That, and playing a disabled or mentally challenged character, is one of the surest routes to an Academy Award. Law's no dummy, but he'll probably lose to Bill Murray (a comedian making a "serious" film is another good way to get the Academy's attention, but Murray deserves an award for Lost in Translation). Law may well be the Cary Grant of the 21st century - too damn fine-looking to be taken seriously. It's a rough life.

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