“Cold Mountain” is exactly that type of movie that has so much going for it – tremendous hype, three great talents – Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger – a best-selling novel at its source, and enough pathos to make even the hardest of us weep. Unfortunately, the film fell prey to the plodding screenwriting and direction of Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), who despite tremendous artistic vision displays the regrettable tendency to let good films suffer needlessly as a result of bad pacing. Despite an eminently timely (if liberal) message, his latest picture, for which we had such high hopes, is no more than the most recent instance of why screenwriters, directors and editors should in most cases be separate individuals.
Jude Law plays Inman, a confederate soldier in the Civil War who deserts to reunite with his sweetheart, Ada (Nicole Kidman). His journey is long and torturous, not unlike Ada’s experience attempting to survive on her father’s farm without the knowledge to effectively do so in the backwater town of Cold Mountain. She is assisted by the young Ruby (pluckishly played by Renee Zellweger) as she waits for her man to return from the war.
The story is mightily told – and in fact it’s good despite its extreme predictability. Movie buffs will be able to spy the certain signs of obvious plot twists and character developments, but the characters are so well acted that the shortcomings of the story are quite forgivable. The expansive photography is also a sight to behold, and Minghella’s war sequences are appropriately visceral and violent. There is also what seems a disproportionate amount of animal killings, yet the script helps us understand the overarching mentality behind their inclusions (I’m not sure if that was Minghella or Charles Frazier, who wrote the novel). And taken both as a whole and in bite-size episodic segments, the film stands on its own as a very vital work.
The reason it is able to overcome such character deficiencies is its undercurrents of anti-war sentiment, which although defiantly liberal (given the Republican White House warmongering) are nevertheless worthy discussions to have. They are effectively summed by a statement made by Zellweger’s character: “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit! They call this war a cloud over the land - but they made the weather, then they stay out in the rain and say ‘Shit! It’s raining!’” It’s a brilliant speck of political irony embedded in a film about the Civil War, but quite obviously designed to map the American horrors of the 1800s to present-day international strifes.
However, there is no escaping the dreadfully melodramatic script – even the actors occasionally seem unable to get their mouths around the sentimental language despite their best efforts. There is not a touch of subtlety to be found in the relationship between Ada and Inman – they fall in love over the course of a scene, play courtship in two more, are separated for the bulk of the film, and when they are reunited (sorry to ruin that, if you couldn’t guess it) rut desperately with barely comprehensible dialogue as foreplay. Moreover, the pacing of the story draws out their separation to a degree where instead of watching breathlessly for the moment they are able to glance upon each other again, you’ll just be glancing at your watch.
“Cold Mountain” is the latest evidence in the indictment of Minghella as a slightly over-hyped director; his vision is exemplary, his pacing deadly. Those who appreciated “The English Patient” or “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for their meandering, if picturesque, musings will also like this film. But if while watching those earlier films your mind wandered or you grew tired of watching, you might want to stay out of the “Cold.”