Rated R - Running Time: 2:35 - Released 12/25/03

Writer/director Anthony Minghella became well-known with his third film, The English Patient, which pretty much swept the 1997 Academy Awards, receiving 12 nominations and winning nine of them (including Best Picture and Best Director). Minghella’s next film was 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, which also garnered several Oscar nominations (no wins), such as Jude Law’s Best Supporting Actor nod. Now (after a 2000 film version of Samuel Beckett’s Play, which was apparently only released in Finland and Sweden), Minghella and Law have reunited for Cold Mountain, another obvious Oscar grab which focuses on the American Civil War and boasts such impressive names in the cast as Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Natalie Portman. Not too shabby for a director who’s only on his sixth feature.

While last February’s Civil War movie, Ronald Maxwell’s lengthy Gods And Generals, was all about epic battles and high-minded speechifying, this film, adapted by Minghella from the novel by Charles Frazier, takes a more personal approach, focusing on the home front rather than the battlefield (although it does begin with a bloody scene from the battle of Petersburg, Va.). It is particularly about the trials of a young woman who waits for her lover’s return in a small southern town. As we learn during the first hour or so by way of multiple flashbacks interspersed between scenes at the front, Ada (Kidman) had moved to Cold Mountain, N.C., only a few years before the war began with her beloved father, the widowed Reverend Monroe (Sutherland), who has reared his daughter to be an intellectual young woman capable of intelligent discourse on many subjects and also well-trained on the piano. After buying a piece of property called Black Cove Farm, they settle in and become acquainted with neighbors like Esco and Sally Swanger (James Gammon, Kathy Baker), and Ada begins a flirtatious near-romance with a wordless young farmhand of theirs named Inman (Law). However, while she likes the town and its people, Ada soon discovers how cold the mountain can get when she loses the two most important men in her life during the same short period: Inman goes off to war and Rev. Monroe dies at the dinner table.

Realizing that although Ada is well-educated in school subjects she is ill-prepared to run a home, Mrs. Swanger sends help in the form of Ruby Thewes (Zellweger), an outspoken farmhand claiming to be “as good as any man,” who—unlike Ada—is ignorant of book learning but very well trained in practical matters thanks to the frequent absence of her father, a wayward traveling musician named Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson). While Ada and Ruby begin the momentous task of bringing Black Cove Farm back up to working condition, they form an increasingly close friendship, sparked in part by their common antipathy toward the malicious town guard run by Teague (Ray Winstone), who has an eye for Ada (and her farm) and often reminds her that Inman is probably not coming back. Teague and his men are constantly on the prowl for war deserters and those who harbor them, since desertion has recently been declared an offense punishable by execution. Meanwhile Inman, having lost his desire to take part in “a cause I don’t believe in,” has indeed gone AWOL, and is trying to make his way home to Ada. Along the way he meets a number of characters who affect his fortunes, including a lecherous minister (Hoffman), a treacherous yokel (Giovanni Ribisi), a young war widow with a sick infant (Portman), and an elderly healer (Eileen Atkins).

While Cold Mountain is an emotional story embroidered well by director Minghella’s well-known visual technique and aided immeasurably by its able cast, it suffers from some unfortunate issues which tend to undermine its ability to be taken seriously, like an occasionally trite storyline, some equally stereotypical characters, and some glaringly anachronistic dialogue. While some aspects of the film are presented in suitably graphic detail to make it clear that the director is going for a certain level of authenticity, there will be something that pops up (like a white man calling another white man “man”) which is so jarring, it takes the viewer right out of the scene, a disastrous occurrence for a period movie trying to be taken seriously. Moreover, the plot occasionally leans so obviously towards Gone With The Wind-style melodrama (especially toward the end), it becomes necessary to consciously resist rolling one’s eyes in disbelief. Does absolutely everything have to go wrong for these characters? Do the villains have absolutely no redeeming qualities, or justifications for their purely evil ways? At times I thought Teague was in serious need of a big ol’ handlebar moustache to twirl at the proper moments.

On the whole, Cold Mountain is an engaging story and another important acting credit for Law, Kidman, Zellweger, and the others. It is unfortunate that it occasionally takes itself too seriously for its own good. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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