Unshakable moral convictions are shown to go tragically awry in “Copperhead,” a stodgy, drearily long-winded attempt to shed light on a little-known chapter of Civil War history. Focusing on an internecine Union conflict between the staunch abolitionists and the equally vehement antiwar Democrats, director Ron Maxwell’s adaptation of Harold Frederic’s 1893 novel elicits a certain amount of admiration for its old-fashioned carpentry and earnest, worthy approach, but its stilted dramaturgy and endless speechifying defeat the committed efforts of a sprawling ensemble. In limited release since June, the film seems likely to generate VOD interest primarily among history buffs who have exhausted superior options (like the recent “Lincoln”) elsewhere.
With stultifying thoroughness, Bill Kaufman’s script lays out the various tensions plaguing a small farming community in upstate New York circa 1862, one year into the Civil War. Occupying the moral center of this gathering storm is Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), a farmer who opposes slavery, like most of his northern brethren, but who refuses to support a war that has claimed and will continue to claim countless American lives. This earns him and his like-minded farmhands the derisive label of copperhead (or “venomous snake”) from the likes of Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen), a fire-and-brimstone abolitionist who serves as a none-too-subtle avatar of zealous intolerance run amok.
There’s a smidgen of “Romeo and Juliet” and an excess of father-and-son antipathy in this scenario, as Beech’s headstrong offspring (Casey Thomas Brown) falls in love with Hagadorn’s daughter (Lucy Boynton), then enlists in the Union army in bold defiance of his father’s wishes. Naturally, Hagadorn is disappointed by the refusal of his own son (Augustus Prew) to join the war effort, a neatly symmetrical irony that further impedes viewer involvement.
Although there is one brief town scuffle and a climactic conflagration, Maxwell deliberately avoids the battlefield sequences of his earlier Civil War epics “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals,” instead focusing on the ramifications of a war unfolding much closer to home. The film clearly means to inspire a contemporary audience to reflect on its own intractable attitudes and self-righteous certainties, whatever they may be, and the characters’ endless debates are not without intelligence or rhetorical interest. But the actors’ flat, declamatory style, working in concert with Kees Van Oostrum’s overly polished, presentational lensing, keeps this loquacious cinematic term paper from really coming to life.
Still, the thesps do what they can, and their level of focused engagement is at times moving for reasons that have little to do with the material. As the ranting, outspoken Hagadorn, Macfadyen happily chews the bucolic scenery before stumbling his way to a place of poignant restraint by the film’s dramatic climax, while Campbell makes the equally stubborn Beech a figure of gruff but clear-eyed dignity, even when he ardently defends a pacifist view that seems rather dubious in hindsight. The younger actors, by comparison, are considerably less persuasive.
Shot in New Brunswick, the picture boasts solid production values, although Laurent Eyquem’s syrupy score has been rather injudiciously applied.