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War for Art’s Sake


Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella, USA, 2003

Rating: 3.0



Posted: December 26, 2003

By Laurence Station

Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's popular Civil War-era novel Cold Mountain has an appropriately haunted, blue-tone look (the peaks of Romania standing in for Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains), appealing leads (Jude Law and Nicole Kidman), and a writer-director with a proven literary-adaptation track record (the Oscar-lauded The English Patient). What it lacks is character dimensions beyond broadly sketched romantic stereotypes, and a commitment to wholly revealing the ugly business of life during wartime.

Cold Mountain tells the story of Inman (Law), a Confederate solider from North Carolina who, having survived a bullet to the neck in battle, escapes from the hospital tending to him and makes his way home to his lady love, Ada (Kidman). It doesn't take a degree in Literature to recognize that Homer's Odyssey is the most obvious model for this structure, but unfortunately Inman has no crew on his journey, and his adventures are far less moving or engaging than those experienced by Odysseus. As with the Odyssey, we learn of the various travails Inman's porcelain-fine Southern Belle must endure while he's away at war. Ada's preacher father (Donald Sutherland, essentially turning in a cameo) passes away while Inman's off fighting the Yankees, and her house falls into disrepair. To make matters worse, a Home Guard militia, whose sole job appears to consist of terrorizing and killing anyone the group suspects of harboring deserters, stands in for the collective role of Penelope's suitors. The murderous squad's leader Teague (Ray Winstone) continually reminds the fetching Ada that her man isn't ever coming back, but she refuses to entertain his obvious advances. Of course, if Inman does show up, he'll be shot for desertion. This poignant fact not lost on Ada, who finds an unlikely ally in the rootless Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger, injecting much-needed energy into the somber proceedings). Ruby works on her farm for food and shelter -- and, naturally, teaches the demure Ada a lesson in self-reliance in the face of adversity.

Meanwhile, Inman's odyssey back home is briefly enlivened by the appearance of the randy Reverend Veasey (the ever-reliable Philip Seymour Hoffman), who cheats on his spouse, suffers from bowel problems, and has no compunction about stealing whatever items he comes across. Regrettably, Veasey doesn't stick around long enough to pump any real life into the stoic-to-a-fault Inman, who emerges as Cold Mountain's biggest obstacle. Impossibly noble, preposterously faithful to a woman he hardly knows and has kissed only once, Inman -- as played by Law, a smoldering mannequin with a perpetually furrowed brow -- shoulders the same tired baggage that loads down The Last Samurai's Captain Algren: He's done terrible things during the war (like killing people who were trying to kill him -- how unique!) and, scarred by the experience, wants nothing more than to return to his beloved Ada. Crucially, he wants to put the evil that war brings behind him.

An admirable goal, sure, but what a dull set of characteristics to saddle a main character with! Odysseus was a braggart and a poor winner who couldn't keep his big mouth shut and got punished by the gods for it. Leopold Bloom, James Joyce's famous cuckold from Ulysses, was a borderline pervert whose wife cheated on him primarily because he was more voyeur than competent lover. Inman, by contrast, is more a romantic ideal of the reluctant warrior than flesh-and-blood, humanly flawed character. And that's just not very engaging. Likewise, Ada is more stock tragic Southern heroine than hardened war widow. At least Scarlett O'Hara could be a conniving and selfish bitch when push came to shove. Inman and Ada are scrubbed clean of all vice, resistant to all temptations, boldly overcoming adversity while awaiting the inevitable embrace that will reward them for their perseverance during the terrible conflict. What they most definitely are not is real. Despite committed performances from the two leads (whose pristinely beautiful and iconic personas, one could argue, bear at least as much fault as Minghella's script), it's simply impossible to form an emotional connection with either character.

This icy love story is impediment enough, but Cold Mountain similarly shies away from depicting the ugliness of warfare with any emotional heft. During the opening battlefield sequence, bombs explode, mud and bodies fly, but there's no visceral link to the messiness of war. The blood-drenched characters have a painterly, rather than mortally wounded, quality about them. As with the rest of the film, the overall effect is more hyper-romantic than grimly realistic, more Winslow Homer than Matthew Brady. This subtracts from any powerful sense that real lives are at stake; the film is refined to the point that even the dirt under a character's fingernails feels artificial, and precisely applied. John Seale, who won an Oscar for The English Patient, filmed Cold Mountain with an eye for balance and overall composition that is certainly laudable; no herky jerky, Private Ryan-style camerawork here. As something you might want to take a snapshot of and admire, it's certainly gorgeous. It's just not alive. The "cold" in the title proves all too apt.

Cold Mountain, then, is a romantic fable of uncommon fidelity, set against the backdrop of the bloodiest war this country's ever seen. It's easy on the eyes and cardboard stiff. Too bad Minghella forgot to add a pulse.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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