After the runaway success of Anthony Minghella’s 1996 epic weepie The English Patient, it served as no surprise that the writer/director returned to similar material with 2003’s Cold Mountain. The two films share several similarities. Both stories focus on nascent love ruined by war, and in each case the pair of lovers under duress are beautiful individuals, whose looks are only outstripped by the lushness of the countrysides which they inhabit. The evocation of the historical time period in each film is also accomplished, with the grime of war and the earthiness of the story’s communities projecting an authentic air.
Yet, Cold Mountain also simultaneously (and wierdly) feels superficial. This isn’t just because the chompers of nearly every character are shinier than a batch of freshly polished pearls, but because Minghella had the opportunity to probe real, meaty issues related to the Civil War and simply dropped the ball.
Cold Mountain begins with the Siege of Petersburg, and it’s beautifully staged. It also powerfully indicates how the film succeeds and fails.
Working alongside a crew of veterans, Minghella creates some extraordinary visuals in the scene. Searing explosions ripping through the bodies of Confederate soldiers; a horse righting itself from a smokey landscape of ash; and hundreds of Union troops getting caught and trampled in a crater of their own making, are just a few of the breathtaking images captured. Stitched together by legendary editor Walter Murch, and efficiently shot by Minghella’s frequent DP John Seale, this beginning battle is both epic and expansive and tight and claustrophobic.
It just doesn’t add up to much. Despite the sequence’s visual force, the audience’s emotional investment is marginal at best. This comes down to a lack of scope. The story mainly functions as an outlet to explore the wispy, effervescent love of Jude Law’s Inman and Nicole Kidman’s Ada, who meet three years before the opening battle sequence in a manner that feels somewhat contrived. The story’s focus only expands away from this duo occasionally, and then its tangents are brief and vacuous.
Thus, in the opening battle – where hundreds of sentient men turn into inanimate meat – there is a surprising lack of feeling. We have no reason to care who lives or dies. This problem becomes progressively more glaring, especially when Inman does the Odysseus thing. He ends up deserting after taking a slug in the neck, and then slowly begins a long hike across America towards his lady love. During this trek, he runs across seemingly every major actor in Hollywood, who have all gamely donned period dress, adopted good ol’ boy (or girl) twangs and dirtied up their faces.
Some of Inman’s exploits are harrowing. In fact, one of the best scenes is when he runs across the depressing homestead of a young widow (played by professional crier Natalie Portman). The dynamic created between the widow and Law’s stoic soldier is moving. The actress’s intense almost abrasive vulnerability fits perfectly within the context of the scene, and it’s probably safe to say she has never been better.
Strangely, this is as close to a look at the Civil War’s effects as the film is willing to go. Law, to his credit, puts in a huge effort to expand the film’s outlook. In one scene – after being captured by some Confederate thugs tasked with bringing men back to the front – he desperately exclaims: “I ain’t getting shot again for some cause I don’t believe in.” Not for a second do you doubt Law’s performance. What undercuts any lasting impact however is the writing; we don’t understand very much about the inner life of the character. We don’t understand why he now doesn’t believe in the war.
This lack of philosophical discourse and intellectual curiosity permeates much of the proceedings. It also infects Ama’s storyline, which runs parallel to Inman’s. Back at Cold Mountain, and following the death of her father (Donald Sutherland), Kidman’s Ama finds herself slowly beginning to sink into an increasingly desperate economic and emotional state. Hope arrives in the form of Renee Zellweger’s Ruby, a drifter who comes to help Ama with her farm that is spiraling out of control. This feminist flourish – encapsulated in the slow bond which grows between Ruby and Ama – is certainly a welcomed attribute. Yet, neither woman contributes much in regards to Cold Mountain’s Civil War backdrop.
Ama in particular feels like a missed opportunity. In the beginning of the film we learn that she had come from inner-city Charleston to the bucolic Cold Mountain, and had even dismissed the slaves that had worked on the property. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the film to investigate the economic dimensions of the Civil War’s catalyst. Yet, nothing like this ever comes to fruition. And as for Zellweger’s Ruby (her Oscar-winning role)? Well, it certainly is an interesting performance. It’s clearly designed to off-set the composed dignity of the Inman/Ama pairing, which is a blessed reprieve. Still, she’s big, loud and somewhat artificial at times. To her credit, Zellweger does try hard, but ultimately Ruby does come off like a ‘toon as much as she does a three-dimensional person.
There are a innumerable amount of other characters, with the most significant being a pair of ruthless fucks who live for hunting deserters. These two misanthropes are embodied by Ray Winstone (who has one or two great lines) and Charlie Hunnam (who follows the trope that an albino must be amoral). Their bloodthirsty commitment to their craft is never fleshed out beyond the level of caricature, which negatively affects the gunslinging climax of Cold Mountain. While certainly visceral, the ramifications of this scene largely doesn’t extends beyond its puffs of revolver smoke. This is a sentiment that could be shared by the film itself. It’s a beautiful piece of work, which does occasionally create bursts of energy and drama. Yet, it’s also ephemeral and weightless, its resonance drifting away soon after its final frame.