Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, which he adapted from Charles Frazier’s novel, has the big, glossy feel of a Hollywood epic that’s been worked up by experts. The costumes from the Civil War era look authentic down to the inseams, the firearms are museum-quality, and fog rolls down off the mountains right on cue. It’s a movie that, like the novel, very much wants to be mythic—an American version of The Odyssey. But Minghella, as he demonstrated in The English Patient, is at his least interesting when he thinks big. Cold Mountain has some marvelous, intimate moments and a real feeling, at times, for the loss that war engenders, but it also has more than its share of hokum—which would be more entertaining if the hokum were juicier. But Minghella is a very serious sort: Everything in this movie, even the humor, is meant to serve a higher purpose.
Using a crosscutting structure sprinkled with flashbacks, Minghella introduces us to three people whose fates intertwine. Ada (Nicole Kidman) is a southern belle newly arrived in a farming community in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains; she and Inman (Jude Law), a local workhand, are sweet on each other but don’t do much about it except exchange tintypes and pleasantries (and a smooch) before he joins the Confederate Army. Left alone on her father’s farm, fearing attack, Ada is joined by Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a no-nonsense drifter who immediately tackles the food-shortage problem by twisting a troublesome rooster’s head clean off. She keeps Ada sane while Ada pines for Inman—who, unknown to her, is enduring a Homeric series of trials in order to return to her. Badly wounded in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and captured for a time by a Confederate officer and put on a chain gang, Inman acquires the shaggy, ragged look of a suffering martyr. In the time-honored tradition of mythic movie heroes, he doesn’t say a whole lot. It’s not shell shock, really—in his pre-battle scenes with Ada, he’s just about as blank. (In the book, it was clear that Inman felt he had come to his senses by leaving the war.) The assumption must be that these guys would sound ordinary if they opened up. Why be a man when you can be an Everyman?
Because Inman is such a holy lump, it falls to some of the supporting players to enliven his pilgrimage, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as a randy, disgraced preacher and Eileen Atkins as a hard-bitten goat keeper. (She might be part goat herself.) Meanwhile, back on the farm, things are a bit more spirited with Ada—except that, like Inman, she is presented as an idealization of agony and survival. With her perfect teeth and flawless alabaster skin, she looks like a marble saint. Not always, though: Striding about all in black, with a smart black hat, she might be modeling for Prada. It’s difficult to ponder hardship and starvation while all this preening is going on. Fortunately, Zellweger keeps Kidman (reasonably) honest; their scenes together have a convivial, feminine vitality—a resonance. Zellweger’s Ruby is more than comic relief; she’s relief for the soul.
Although he provides almost no political context for the Civil War, Minghella is saying that War Is Not the Answer. This message is explicit enough that, at the screening I attended, the audience cheered several times at what they clearly believed to be parallels to the current Iraq situation. They were cheering the perception that, as a way to solve humankind’s ills, bloodshed is excruciatingly unnecessary. (If there was any doubt in my mind about this, a Q&A session afterward with the director confirmed it.) For Minghella, the horrors of violence drive good people to come together and prevail. It’s a sentimental vision that he can’t quite pull off because, as it turns out, the scenes of brutality in this movie are far more effective than its passages of reconciliation. The Siege of Petersburg is a burnt-sienna panorama of massed, broken bodies. In another sequence, Ada’s neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker) looks on aghast while the vigilante-style Confederate Home Guard invades her farm and obliterates her future. We can fully believe that this strong, proud woman would be stricken mute by the devastation. Later on, over a campfire, this same ragtag regiment sniffs out a pack of musician deserters, including Ruby’s errant father (Brendan Gleeson) and an amiable half-wit (Ethan Suplee), and slowly moves in for the kill. It’s a scene worthy of Peckinpah, and it contains a terrifying, lyrical moment when the regiment’s leader (Ray Winstone) suddenly finds himself moved by the plaintive folk air the musicians are forced to sing before he has them executed.