22 August 2005 | oschaefe
A chilling vision of a tragic era
'War movie' is a Hollywood genre that has been done and redone so many times that clichéd dialogue, rehashed plot and over-the-top action sequences seem unavoidable for any conflict dealing with large-scale combat. Once in a while, however, a war movie comes along that goes against the grain and brings a truly original and compelling story to life on the silver screen. The Civil War-era "Cold Mountain," starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger is such a film.
Then again, calling Cold Mountain" a war movie is not entirely accurate. True enough, the film opens with a (quite literally) quick-and-dirty battle sequence that puts "Glory" director Edward Zwick shame. However, "Cold Mountain" is not so much about the Civil War itself as it is about the period and the people of the times. The story centers around disgruntled Confederate soldier Inman, played by Jude Law, who becomes disgusted with the gruesome war and homesick for the beautiful hamlet of Cold Mountain, North Carolina and the equally beautiful southern belle he left behind, Ada Monroe, played by Nicole Kidman. At first glance, this setup appears formulaic as the romantic interest back home gives the audience enough sympathy to root for the reluctant soldier's tribulations on the battlefield. Indeed, the earlier segments of the film are relatively unimpressive and even somewhat contrived.
"Cold Mountain" soon takes a drastic turn, though, as the intrepid hero Inman turns out to be a deserter (incidentally saving the audience from the potentially confusing scenario of wanting to root for the Confederates) and begins a long odyssey homeward. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Ada's cultured ways prove of little use in the fields; soon she is transformed into something of a wilderbeast. Coming to Ada's rescue is the course, tough-as-nails Ruby Thewes, played by Renée Zellweger, who helps Ada put the farm back together and, perhaps more importantly, cope with the loneliness and isolation the war seems to have brought upon Ada.
Within these two settings, a vivid, compelling and, at times, very disturbing portrait of the war-torn South unfolds. The characters with whom Inman and Ada interact are surprisingly complex, enhanced by wonderful performances of Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's deadbeat father, Ray Winstone as an unrepentant southern "lawman," and Natalie Portman as a deeply troubled and isolated young mother. All have been greatly affected and changed by "the war of Northern aggression," mostly for the worse. The dark, pervading anti-war message, accented by an effective, haunting score and chillingly beautiful shots of Virginia and North Carolina, is communicated to the audience not so much by gruesome battle scenes as by the scarred land and traumatized people for which the war was fought. Though the weapons and tactics of war itself have changed much in the past century, it's hellish effect on the land is timelessly relevant.
Director Anthony Minghella manages to maintain this gloomy mood for most of the film, but the atmosphere is unfortunately denigrated by a rather tepid climax that does little justice to the wonderfully formed characters. The love story between Inman and Ada is awkwardly tacked onto the beginning and end of the film, though the inherently distant, abstracted and even absurd nature of their relationship in a way fits the dismal nature of the rest of the plot.
Make no mistake, "Cold Mountain" has neither the traits of a feel-good romance nor an inspiring war drama. It is a unique vision of an era that is sure not only to entertain but also to truly absorb the audience into the lives of a people torn apart by a war and entirely desperate to be rid of its terrible repercussions altogether.