Two of the major film releases of late 2003, The Last Samurai and the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings, are centered on extended, graphic scenes of warfare and both films blatantly peddle war as noble and heroic. Such cultural propaganda abets in the molding of a public mindset that allows duplicitous politicians to lead nations into heedless military adventurism, onto international battlegrounds where the reality of death and destruction belies cinematic dreams of glory.
Cold Mountain is about war and its pervasive effect on individuals, both those on the front and those back home. Anthony Minghella’s film, based on the brilliant first novel by Charles Frazier, opens with a Civil War battle in which there is no glory, only brutal slaughter on ground made muddy by the flowing blood of the maimed and dying. It is a scene from Hell, a man-made Hell right here on Earth.
Injured in the battle and hospitalized, Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law) is deeply disillusioned and decides to desert. He sets out on foot from Virginia, heading for his home town in the Blue Ridge mountains where he had left behind Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), just as romance was budding between them. Though they had shared only a few conversations and one departing kiss, each finds succor and motivation in the promise of their future together.
Flashbacks fill in the story of Ada and her minister father (Donald Sutherland) who had relocated from Charleston to live on a farm in rural Black Cove, under the shadow of Cold Mountain. When her father dies, Ada, bred for city life, is unequipped to run the farm. Her father’s investments become worthless, due to the war. She barely survives starvation, even with gifts of food from a kindly neighbor, Sally Swanger (Kathy Baker).
Help arrives in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), a local woman with little education, but a wealth of skills in farming and survival in general. Together, the two women labor to bring the farm back from near ruin to self-sustaining productivity. Casting a pall over the lives of the whole town are a gang of Home Guards, lawless bounty hunters looking for deserters.
The story of Ada’s experience is intercut with episodes from Inman’s Odyssey-like journey home. He, too, must avoid the Home Guards as he makes his way, having a series of encounters with local people: a fornicating minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a mountain woman living in isolation in harmony with nature (Eileen Atkins), a lonely young widow alone with her baby (Nathalie Portman), a wily hillbilly lowlife who uses his daughters as sexual lures (Giovanni Ribisi).
Both stories are episodic, each episode a learning experience for Inman on the road and Ada at home. In the novel, a genuine tension accrued as to whether or not the couple would be reunited; in the film (especially in view of the publicity given a lovemaking scene) that tension is largely absent. But the film does develop the two characters in depth and the growth and changes in their characters are finely realized by Kidman and Law. Their essential goodness (as well as that of several other characters) is sustained (sometimes at heartbreaking cost) despite the infectious amorality and quick violence with which the war has permeated the country, both at the front and back home.
Elegantly filmed and superbly acted, Cold Mountainis faithful to the novel which is its source. Occasionally, it even manages to find visual equivalents for the poetic style of the book. But the film falls just short of the full emotional impact it should generate. In the complete professionalism of its execution, it seems almost too calculated and it is drained of any sense of spontaneity. That and its episodic structure compromise its ability to build the powerful identification that would lead to catharsis.
Still, Minghella tells a compelling story and creates memorable screen characters. The film is a tonic after the overdose of sword-waving on view this season.