A challenging literary adaptation is tackled with skill and smarts in “Cold Mountain.” An involving drama about a young Confederate soldier’s precarious voyage home after having his fill of the Civil War, Anthony Minghella’s follow-up to his imposing predecessors “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a grim picaresque odyssey across a beautiful scarred landscape laced together by private romantic longing. Handsomely made and vividly acted, this large gamble by Miramax will likely receive the sort of supportive reviews and year-end attention it needs to connect with the intended discerning mass audience, resulting in solid domestic B.O., especially in more upscale markets, and perhaps better in many foreign territories.
Doing judicious restructuring and carefully picking events to dramatize, Minghella has manfully grappled with Charles Frazier’s dense 1997 surprise bestseller, a winner of the National Book Award among other kudos. Aside from well representing the novel, the picture also echoes “The English Patient” in important respects, notably in its depiction of separated lovers during a convulsive war, men recovering from serious wounds and characters with literary bents.
At the same time, this relatively rare major film to focus on the Civil War is obviously inspired by Homer’s “The Odyssey,” with a warrior encountering myriad characters and odd situations on his long way back to the woman who faithfully waits for him through the years. And some will be put in mind of such cinematic romantic epics as “Doctor Zhivago” and “Reds,” although “Cold Mountain” is mostly too chaste to be classified with any of these more passion-driven tales.
As such, “Cold Mountain” is a film that may command respect and approval more than it will inspire ardent public enthusiasm. It opens with its most sobering scene, a concentrated evocation of the Siege of Petersburg, Va., in July of 1864, in which the Union initiates the slaughter with the startling tactic of blowing up Rebel troops with dynamite laid out in tunnels beneath them. Thereafter, Minghella uses mostly close-ups to emphasize the chaos and massive human loss, as blood increasingly reddens the mud, not even bothering to note the outcome of the clash.
One of the Southern soldiers, who fights bravely and well, goes by the single name of Inman (Jude Law), and even as the battle rages the film cuts back to a quieter moment three years earlier, when Inman, a handsome carpenter in a small North Carolina town, met the beauteous Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), the daughter of an old preacher (Donald Sutherland) just arrived from Charleston to lead to local parish.
Very tentatively, the reserved young man and the refined young lady make one another’s acquaintance, and at any other time things between them would undoubtedly have taken their natural course over a proper period. But war fever is rampant in the South, and it’s only in the minute before Inman rushes to join his fellow townsmen to march off to war that he passionately kisses Ada, who in turn promises to wait for him.
In their voiced-over correspondence (most of it never received) and in their eventual conversation, both Inman and Ada reflect upon how they barely know each other. And yet their feelings are enough to not only keep them single-mindedly devoted throughout the war, but to motivate them to survive no matter the calamities that befall them in the interim.
Back in 1864 after the battle, Inman, recovered from a near-fatal neck injury, decides he’s done and seen enough killing and lights out from the hospital to head home. As a deserter, Inman must now be wary of all troops, Union or Confederate. In a very effective scene that parallels the beginning of Inman’s odyssey, Ada takes friends’ advice to look into a well through a mirror to glimpse the future and is startled to see the presumed image of a man walking toward her, surrounded by black crows.
When her father dies, things go rapidly downhill for Ada. Raised in society to speak French and Latin and to conduct herself in a ladylike manner, Ada is utterly ill-equipped to cope at the farm on her own. Without funds and unable even to cook, she starts wasting away, until a neighbor sends over a young woman to work for her and put things right. This is Ruby (Renee Zellweger), and the picture gets a shot in the arm the moment this bundle of can-do energy comes bounding onscreen 50 minutes in.
Abandoned by her father years before, uncouth and essentially illiterate, Ruby still knows how to do everything Ada can’t manage, like pulling a rooster’s head off so they can eat something, planting a field and working ceaselessly from dawn till dusk to make sure they’re prepared for the winter. Ruby would win any season of “Survivor” without raising a sweat.
Acknowledging the uselessness of her education in the circumstances, Ada willingly becomes Ruby’s student, while playing piano and helping her with reading in off-hours. Entrancingly enacted by Zellweger and Kidman, relationship between the two women provides the story with its strongest positive dynamic in a world dominated by conflict, suspicion and violence.
Latter are just what Inman encounters with nearly every step. Spotting an anguished reverend named Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about to dump a black girl into a river, Inman rescues her, learns that the pastor had made her pregnant and executes his own proper justice by tying Veasey up in town and posting a note describing his crime. When they meet again later, Veasey forgives Inman as they embark on a drunken evening that ends with the pair captured by a Confederate officer and marched off on a chain gang.
Episodic nature of the material cannot be disguised, but it’s eased by the adroit alternation between scenes of Inman’s journey and developments with the women on the home front. With a Southern defeat now inevitable, activities are stepped up by the Home Guard, trigger-happy enforcers who roam the countryside ferreting out deserters and those who aid them. In the Cold Mountain area, the posse is headed by Teague (Ray Winstone), a bitter man who would like to reclaim the vast local lands his family formerly owned and is more than distracted by Ada’s beauty.
While the arrival of Ruby’s long-lost father Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson) throws a monkey wrench into the women’s lives, Inman’s days continue to be eventful. Eileen Atkins’ wonderfully terse performance as an old hermit who heals Inman reps a thesping highlight, and Natalie Portman figures in one of the most alarming episodes as Sara, a lonely young war widow and mother who gives Inman shelter for a night but is attacked by Union soldiers in the morning.
“Man dead, woman left,” is Sara’s assessment of the effects of the war, and remark reps an accurate indication of the story’s intensely personal, character-driven orientation. Pic makes virtually no reference to politics, the issues that caused the war or what’s at stake. Even less than in the book, slaves and black characters are observed only in passing, and there are no pipe-sucking Southern colonels in rocking chairs lamenting the passing of the old ways.
All this is fine and well, but also missing is a real feeling of the Old South, a deep sense of the mores and attitudes and manner of living that knitted the people together. Despite the extensive original research by author Frazier that backs everything up, the verisimilitude of the sets and the evident care that’s gone into every aspect of the production, there is an intangible something missing in the portrait of the society. It’s impossible to say whether this stems from the fact that the film was mostly shot in Romania, from its being made mostly by foreigners or from the variability of the accents by a significantly Anglo-Aussie cast, but there’s something of a void at the bottom of things where bedrock ought to be.
Film’s romantic bets pay off when Inman finally arrives at Cold Mountain and reunites with Ada. But his presence there, where only one in 10 men are thought to have survived the war, makes him more conspicuous than ever, and significantly more blood must be shed on the way to the tale’s melancholy end.
Playing in an appealing low-key style that positions Inman as a thoughtful, alert young man who’s highly principled but also able to do whatever needs to be done to survive, Law strikes a fine balance between his character’s shell-shocked weariness and his gritty determination to stay alive; Inman could easily have been too recessive, a man to whom things happen, or too gung-ho in his overcoming obstacles, but Law combines the traits very credibly.
In a role that could have been a helpless wilting lily for quite a while, Kidman supplies all manner of subtle inflections and increasingly radiant expressions that keep Ada interesting and make her grow, which she does through her relationship with Ruby and then moreso when Inman returns. For some time after Ruby’s arrival, there’s nothing any actress could do to prevent Zellweger from stealing every scene; the latter literally bounces across the landscape and reacts with comic gumption to any situation that confronts her. Nor does it hurt that Zellweger is the only authentic Southerner among the principal cast.
Acting is colorful down the line, with Gleeson contributing a warmly dimensional portrait of Ruby’s errant father newly willing to toe the line, Hoffman providing larger-than-life gusto in his portrayal of the wayward preacher and Winstone projecting menace without even opening his mouth.
Ace editor Walter Murch helped bring in the picture at a length that feels right for the story being told. No matter where it was shot, the film looks impressive and right, with production designer Dante Ferretti’s hodgepodge of buildings creating a convincing community in a small valley, Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli contributing a fine variety of textures through the costumes and lenser John Seale proving nimbly responsive to both the panoramic and intimate demands of the material.
Special mention must go to the musical elements, in which Gabriel Yared’s supple melodic score, sometimes heightened by choral work, is joined by a fascinating array of songs both traditional and new overseen by executive music producer T-Bone Burnett, composed by the likes of Sting and Elvis Costello and performed by such artists as Alison Krauss and cast member Jack White. Like the soundtracks for “The English Patient” and “Ripley,” this one should make its mark.