The parts of the film Cold Mountain, adapted for the screen from Charles Frazier's masterful novel, are greater than the whole. That's the only way I know to say that in spite of brilliant staging and cinematography, and aside from strong performances and a compelling story line, the emotional impact of Cold Mountain doesn't amount to what it should.
This is the story of would-be lovers, separated at first blush by the battle call of the Civil War. Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) has just arrived in Cold Mountain, N.C., from Savannah, Ga., with her reverend father (Donald Sutherland), when she spots a young hottie named Inman (Jude Law). They exchange a few glances, flirt over a tray of iced tea, and sing together in church before Inman is whisked off to war with his fellow Confederates. Upon his departure, he and Ada share one knee-buckling kiss -- a cinematic moment destined to go down as one of the best kisses in screen history.
What follows is a gut-wrenching enactment of the battle of Petersburg, Va., referred to as the Battle of the Crater, one of the bloodiest encounters in Civil War history with over 6,000 soldiers killed. Union soldiers burrow beneath the Confederate encampment and blow it up with dynamite. But in doing so, they are trapped by the giant crater the explosion creates. "It's a turkey shoot!" hoots one of Inman's fellow Confederates as they join in the bloody, muddy debacle that puts Inman in a makeshift hospital with a near-fatal neck wound. There, he decides to desert and to walk home across the Blue Ridge Mountains to reunite with Ada, whose faded tintype he clutches in his bloodied hands.
The rest of the film divides itself between Inman's Homeric odyssey homeward, including his encounters with human obstacles along the way, and Ada's struggle back in Cold Mountain to survive following her father's death and in the midst of the poverty and corruption sired by war.
Rene Zellweger perks up the film considerably as Ruby Thewes, an itinerant farmhand with a strong back and a big mouth who teaches Ada how to keep the farm running and how to quit being such a priss. Ruby tromps onto the scene with steely determination and Zellweger's performance grows from an initial comic caricature to a stubborn force that keeps Ada and the movie on track.
Meanwhile, Inman encounters a mobile freak show, including Philip Seymour Hoffman in a wild turn as an adulterous preacher; Giovanni Ribisi as a backwoods redneck who lures deserters into his brothel-like home then sells them out to the Home Guard; Natalie Portman in an affecting scene as a young mother, lonely and vulnerable, left behind by her soldier husband; and Eileen Atkins as a goat herder who lovingly slits the throat of one of her herd, a sacrifice that allows her to feed Inman.
Law is given minimal dialogue and walks through these scenes with a wounded determination, hollow-eyed and beaten but driven. His physical beauty eventually pales against the backdrop of the perilous mountains he crosses -- actually the mountains of Romania, where Cold Mountain was filmed.
Kidman's Ada is beautiful and severe, but never wholly human. The scenes back home depict the cultural and physical devastation caused by the war, as well as the unexpected female empowerment experienced by Ada and Ruby as they learn to get by on their own. Some pleasant moments are provided by Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's fair-weather father, a wandering minstrel with undeniable roguish charm.
Director Anthony Minghella is a master of literary adaptations that garner lots of Oscar talk and lots of Oscars. With The English Patient, he made a near-perfect drama inhabited by despicable characters. Here, honorable characters, strongly played for the most part, make for some memorable moments that never really congeal into a dramatic whole. Still, Cold Mountain is well worth a look for its inherent beauty and despair and for a few truly glorious scenes.
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown