Oh! Carolina: Anthony Minghella’s COLD MOUNTAIN

Published on: December 23rd, 2003

Though a flawed film in many respects, Cold Mountain succeeds in its main intention: it convinces us that war – in this case, the US Civil War – is hell, on the battleground and, more importantly, off. The only real frontline skirmish we see takes place, spectacularly, in the first fifteen minutes.Afterwards, the scope, while remaining epic in terms of emotion – becomes much more concentrated on the plight of specific individuals caught up in the sweep of history.

Injured confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law), sickened by the blood-and-gore senselessness of what he’s seen, escapes from military hospital and starts the journey back home to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, where for months and years his sweetheart Ada (Nicole Kidman) has been stoically waiting. The film unfolds in two parallel strands, following on the one hand Inman’s hazardous progress through beautiful but largely hostile terrain, and on the other Ada’s life on her farm. An educated Southern belle from Charleston, she proves ill-equipped to survive the tough Carolina semi-wilderness after the death of her father, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland).

A concerned neighbour organises help, however, in the form of no-nonsense, resiliently pragmatic Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who starts putting the farm in order. But Ada and Ruby face dangers of their own: the brutal Teague (Ray Winstone), who abuses his position as head of the local Home Guard – reponsible for capturing deserters and punishing those who aid them. Teague, whose family formerly owned much of Cold Mountain, has designs on the farm and perhaps even on Ada herself…

This is a big, expensive, prestige production from Miramax, a studio which ever year comes up with at least one such wannabe-epic designed expressly for the purpose of winning Oscar nominations and awards. Minghella’s English Patient was a prime example of mission accomplished, but his Talented Mr Ripley didn’t prove so suited to Academy tastes. Cold Mountain, in theory, has it all: adapted from a well-received, best-selling, doorstop novel (by Charles Frazier) which itself quietly harks back to classical sources (the Odyssey), it boasts top-drawer personnel on both sides of the camera. Oscar-winners involved include legendary editor Walter Murch, cinematographer John Seale, costume-designer Ann Roth (working here with Carlo Poggioli) and composer Gabriel Yared.

Among the more visible talent, the stellar central couple of Law and Kidman are backed up by a shamelessly energetic Zellweger, plus predictably vivid character turns from Winstone, Sutherland, Brendan Gleeson (Zellweger’s long-lost dad), Eileen Atkins (a hermit-woman who tends the injured Inman), Ripley’s Philip Seymour Hoffman (top value* and looking like Harry Knowles in randy-vicar mode), Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi and so on. It isn’t unusual for such a major Hollywood production to have such a starry cast, of course, but the viewer doesn’t usually notice. It’s a sign that something isn’t quite right about Cold Mountain that you’re constantly distracted by, say, the presence of the White Stripes’ Jack White as a travelling minstrel, or the terrific James Rebhorn flitting through as a doctor. It’s an ensemble of sorts, but a decidedly atomised ensemble, one which never meshes together into a convincing portrait of a society in crisis.

Perhaps its something to do with the accents: the cast is full of non-Americans putting on various forms of southern twang/drawl (not since Black Hawk Down have so many foreigners appeared in such an American tale), and even Zellweger – who actually is from Down South – lays it on so thick she’s occasionally incomprehensible. Or perhaps its the fact that Cold Mountain was almost entirely filmed in beautiful, rural Romania (a fact should be exploited by the local tourist authorities, a la Lord of the Rings) – though this is, visually, an entirely convincing double for the American south of 1864. Or perhaps its the constant alternation between the Inman and Ada plots, which isn’t helped by the necessarily episodic and picaresque nature of Inman’s progress.

Lucas Black appears (briefly) in Cold MountainIt doesn’t help, of course, that in a film which is supposed to be simultaneously a war movie and a great romance, there’s very little war action and the romantic couple — as they themselves acknowledge — have only just met before he vanishes off for years on end. This aspect would probably not be a major problem in Frazier’s book, where the individual characters of Ada and Inman could be explored in much greater depth and detail. Minghella, who wrote the screenplay himself, inevitably must summarise and condense, relying heavily on voice-over narration as the lovers read out letters they send to each other, very few of which ever arrive.

All this voice-over does make Cold Mountain something of an old-fashioned film, however as does Minghella’s use of on-screen titles to impart crucial information of geography and chronology. He isn’t shy of augmenting the striking visuals with slightly clumsy filters on occasion, making the top half of the image slightly but noticeably darker for deliberate effect. And while he can’t for once inflict his love of jazz on the audience (an unfortunate tendency he shares with Mike Figgis), he instead lathers the soundtrack with wall-to-wall bluegrass, all twingly-twangly geetars, banjos and violins. Minghella has never been one of those directors we look to for groundbreaking originality, of course, and true to form he often resorts to cinematic cliché: even the very last shot is that craning-back-and-up-from-outside-dining-table we’ve seen a hundred times before.

The story itself also conforms to familiar expectations, and seldom strays far from corn: very early on, a gallant young soldier (an unrecognisable Lucas Black) takes a bayonet to the chest, expiring in traditional style on a hospital stretcher. At a pivotal moment, Ada peers into a well and sees a vision concerning Inman which is, of course, fulfilled in the final reel – but she isn’t the only one able to glimpse whats around the corner. The film traces a well-worn tragic-romantic arc, and the predictable nature of events is heightened by the stark black-and-white polarity between goodies and baddies: Inman is pretty much a saint, whereas Teague is simply evil and cruel. And his main henchman is a character who unfortunately revives that thankfully long-dormant cinematic bogeyman, the evil albino: Charlie Hunnam in a role that strongly recalls Jonathan Rhys-Myers’ sadistic young fop from Ang Lee’s commercial misfire Ride With the Devil.

While Cold Mountain resembles Ride With the Devil in many respects, Lee and his co-scriptwriter James Schamus did manage to tackle the issue of race head-on: Cold Mountain isnt concerned with political issues. Except that, by tearing itself apart in Civil War, America has effectively gone back to the harsh, frontier state endured by the Pilgrim Fathers and their immediate successors. Minghella is strong at showing how the fabric of a civilised society can quickly be ripped apart, and how the ensuing nightmare can be drastically worsened by vicious opportunists like Teague — at such moments, he approaches the kind of world-gone-to-hell ambience of Cormac McCarthy’s novels like Outer Dark.

On this level, Cold Mountain is effective, but it never quite manages to sweep the viewer along in the way that such a long, sumptuous production really should. Its tempting to imagine a real-life Ruby watching Minghella at work, and impatiently telling him off for his clichés, his time-taking and his simple carelessness: how does Inman escape from the military hospital in the first place? When, at the climax, a major character is shot, why don’t we find out the extent of their injuries? That angelic child we see in the coda, is she Ada’s or Ruby’s? And after enduring their various depradations and hardships, is it really good enough to have Ada and Inman just stumble across each other by accident one frosty morning? Cold Mountain as a title ends up fitting all too well: big, beautiful, often impressive. But it might easily leaving you feeling a little, er, chilly.

Neil Young
23rd December, 2003

* Hoffmans delivery of certain (innocuous-looking) lines justifies the admission-price on their own: “I was vain about my hair”… “That’s a rank odor from that animal.” Hold your breath for his Capote.

click here for Neil’s short review of Cold Mountain