December 2003

Reviewed by Julian Roman
Distributor: Miramax Films
Directed by: Anthony Minghella
Producers: Albert Berger, William Horberg, Sydney Pollack, Ron Yerxa
Screenwriter: Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Cinematographer: John Seale
Cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Aileen Atkins, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson, Charlie Hunnam, Ray Winstone, Donald Sutherland


The Odyssey goes Civil War, instead of Odysseus and Penelope; you have Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). They are two star-crossed lovers separated by the great divide of the War Between the States. Ada is a preacher’s daughter that has been transplanted to Cold Mountain, North Carolina. She is the epitome of the southern belle, beautiful, educated, and cultured. The men in town are drawn to her like moths to a flame. She takes an interest in the quiet, poetic carpenter Inman. They are fated to be lovers, mesmerized the instant they meet. The problem is that the war has begun. All the men in town are anxious to sign up and show the Yankees what they’re made off. Inman is sworn to defend southern honor. He goes off to battle thinking the fight would be short lived, a month at best. Ada, enthralled by their short time together, tells him that she will be waiting for his return. Her wait will be painful, three long years of sorrow and death as the war takes its toll on everyone. 

Cold Mountain is an epic romance. It’s about love conquering all, drawing two people back together in a world of horror and evil. I can buy the theme because it’s a beautiful concept, but I’m deeply divided by my feelings for the film. On one hand, I really like it, there are some impressive moments. On the other hand, I feel the film essentially fails at its primary goal. Anthony Minghella, the master auteur behind The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, delivers an incredible vision of war, but a soppy tale of romance. I think he was trying too hard to match the splendor of films like Gone With The Wind. The result is a film that looks fantastic and is entertaining, but really grasps for straws in the moments that matter most. Also, it’s very predictable at times. I think that’s a pretty fair appraisal and I’ll try to explain it without revealing too many spoilers. 

Inman and Ada really don’t know each other when he leaves. Their moments together were magical, but fleeting. They give each other tintypes (first generation photographs) to carry their hearts through the loneliness. The stark pictures, along with a few letters, are the only threads that bind them together during the war. I thought this was great stuff, very romantic. Minghella uses voice-overs and cross fades to simulate the two characters thinking about each other. It’s very effective in communicating the pining desire they have. The problem, and it’s terribly disappointing, is that the same feeling doesn’t come through when they finally reunite. I was very surprised by this. The pivotal moment of reunion is really anti-climactic. How can this be? I think it’s because there’s too much going on when it happens. The movie is filled with numerous encounters that really have no bearing on the story. It’s just to hammer in the fact that Inman meets a bunch of strange people on his way back home. Inman and Ada have a few moments together in the beginning of the film. I understand that they are a bit wary when they finally meet again, after all, how well do you really know somebody. Maybe the thought of the person is more than what actually existed. That’s not supposed to be the case here. The moment of reunion should be an emotional scene that rips the heart of the audience, forcing everyone to grab the hankies. 

I’m going to delve into the filmmaking aspect before talking about the performances. This movie is exceptionally well made. The battle scenes are incredible, probably the best ever about the Civil War. The battle at the beginning of movie absolutely blew me away. Minghella doesn’t shirk from realistically depicting violence. It’s like Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan set in1864. He doesn’t go overboard with the violence either. Minghella strikes the perfect note in accurately reproducing the ravages of battle without being sanctimonious, not an easy feat. The film is also highly stylized. The photography, editing, and production design are on the highest level of filmmaking. John Seale, the cinematographer, paints a vivid portrait of the antebellum South. I can’t imagine the place looking any different. There is one scene in particular, where Ada looks down a well with a mirror that is probably the best-shot scene of the year. She’s doing it to see her future. When she looks in the water, the ripples of darkness and light coalesce to form a wavering image of Inman surrounded by black crows; a well crafted effect. The production team on Cold Mountain knows their business and it shows. 

Renee Zellweger and Phillip Seymour Hoffman steal the show from Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. I’m such a fan of Rene Zellweger. She doesn’t get the credit she deserves. She plays Ruby Thewes, a woman that comes to live with the hapless Ada. What a great character, Ruby is all spunk and fortitude. Whereas Ada is an effeminate peach who is totally lost on the farm, Ruby is an ass kicking hard worker that knows how to get things done. Their friendship is the tide that takes Ada through the bleakness of the war. Zellweger upstages everyone and is on a level by herself as an actress. Hoffman plays the disgraced Reverend Veasey. I won’t say why he’s disgraced, but he adds some sorely needed comic relief to the film. His ten minutes on screen are really a gem. The guy is just the finest character actor in Hollywood today. There are a few famous cameos in the movie. I thought Natalie Portman was wasted, but Giovanni Ribisi does well as always. 

I have my problems with the relationship between Jude Law and Nicole Kidman. I hate to say this, but there really isn’t any chemistry. Maybe I’m in the minority, but it just doesn’t work for me. They seem to be going through the motions of the script. They’re both awesome actors, no one’s debating that. They have well written roles and do an admirable job of portraying them. I just didn’t get overwhelmed or teary-eyed when they were together. Here’s something I always do when I see a romance. I take a brief second to look at the women who are sitting around me. In pivotal romantic scenes, they are the ultimate barometer of what works and doesn’t. I thought someone had released tear gas from the amount of sobbing done in Love Actually. Here, there were dry eyes all around. At 2 1⁄2 hours, the film moves at a brisk pace and I was never bored. They do a good job of spreading out the action. There really isn’t a dead spot anywhere. That being said, the romance aspect gets heavy at times and that might lose some of the audience. I know the Charles Frazier novel was incredibly popular. I never read it, so I can’t judge it, but I’m not sure if the movie will live up to the book’s expectations. Cold Mountain is a good film, not a great film. It’s not the Oscar behemoth that they’re hoping it will be, but I think audiences will generally be satisfied.