Writer-director Anthony Minghella seems to have staked out a special province for himself as the adaptor of apparently intractable novels to the screen. I wasn’t much taken by his widely praised version of Michael Ondaatje’s complicated “The English Patient,” which struck me as obstinately prissy and pretentious, but he did a fine job with Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” capturing its chilly, cheerfully amoral sensibility with remarkable fidelity. Minghella’s latest film, based on Charles Frazier’s episodic Civil War bestseller, falls somewhere between the two. “Cold Mountain” is ostensibly a love story, about a man and a woman who barely know one another but long for each other while separated by the war (and survive on that longing). But true to its title (and to the setting of the final reunion scenes), the romantic element plays out at a very low temperature indeed; the other relationships in the story really dominate. You might observe that the picture is rather like an anti-“Gone With the Wind”: if you’re looking for a sultry Rhett Butler-Scarlett O’Hara conflict, you’re going to be disappointed, and if you want some sort of glorification of southern culture, you’d best look elsewhere, too. But if the idea of a atmospheric series of incidents tied together by an attachment more suggested than dramatized appeals to you, the picture will definitely provide it in a highly accomplished fashion.
The structure of “Cold Mountain” is, in fact, Homeric–it’s a Civil War “Odyssey,” much the way “O Brother Where Art Thou?” was a Depression one–though far more serious and somber in tone. Like the other Homeric epic, “The Iliad,” the picture starts in mid-war, with a Union assault during the siege of Petersburg in 1864; the larger canvas eventually contracts to focus on a Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law), and we’re shortly cast back in time to the titular pre-war North Carolina town, where we see his hesitant, awkward meeting with Ada (Nicole Kidman), the stiffly attractive daughter of Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), who’s recently arrived from Charleston. The two are clearly drawn toward one another, but the outbreak of hostilities intervenes, and after a single farewell kiss Inman marches off to supposed glory along with most of the townsmen. From this point the film alternates between their narratives. Inman, wounded, deserts and makes his way home through a series of violent encounters that threaten to prevent his return: one involves a fallen preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), another a war widow (Natalie Portman), a third a duplicitous farmer (Giovanni Ribisi), and another a cantankerous old woman (Eileen Atkins). Meanwhile back home Ada is unable to keep up the farm after her father’s death, despite the aid of kindly neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker). Fortunately help arrives in the form of a breezily competent, straight-talking backwoods girl named Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who comes to instruct her in the ways of rural life. The later appearance of Ruby’s rascal of a father (Brendan Gleeson), also an army deserter, and his pals adds to the local color. But always lurking in the background is the town villain–Teague (Ray Winstone), the enforcer of martial law in the district, who’d previously lusted after the Monroe spread and now lusts over Ada, and who, with his cocky young enforcer Bosie (Charlie Hunnam), terrorizes the area. Ada longs for Inman’s return, but moved by a magical vision, wonders if he’ll ever make it back; and she becomes more and more proficient at the techniques of survival, thanks to Ruby’s tutelage. In the end, however, Inman does find his way to her–at the very moment that the vicious Teague closes in.
Minghella stages all this in his typically deliberate way, preferring mood and nuance to energy and impetus. The approach works better in some episodes than others, largely depending on the quality of acting in each (the incident involving Portman, for example, builds exceptional power). Generally speaking, the half of the piece centered on Inman is stronger simply because Law invests that character with a quiet passion that can be felt beneath his external impassivity; he more reactor than actor here, and proves very skillful in that role. By contrast Kidman comes across as affected. She does get appreciably better as the story moves forward, and by the final reels, when Ada has become strong and self-assured, she’s quite good. In the earlier segments, however, she seems ill-at-ease and unconvincing. And it can’t be denied that even when performers like Atkins, Sutherland and Winstone do solid work in the weightier portions of the film, you’re likelier to appreciate most those episodes when the more energetic cast members enter and raise the energy level. That’s especially true of Zellweger, who virtually steals every scene she’s in with her spunkiness and speed; she’s not quite a younger version of Ma Kettle, but in this company she comes close. On the Inman side, the figure who easily stands out is Hoffman’s Reverend Veasey, a shallow, talkative fellow who, like Zellweger, brings a welcome element of verbosity and humor to the proceedings. Though somewhat more subdued, the gregarious Gleeson and even the happily nasty Hunnam have a similar effect. That isn’t to say that the rest of the large ensemble cast don’t contribute what Minghella asks of them; they do. But one naturally gravitates toward those who provide something a bit different from the prevailing woozily doom-laden atmosphere that the director is at pains to sustain.
Like all of Minghella’s films, “Cold Mountain” has been produced with great care; the tastefulness is exhibited in cinematographer John Seale’s elegant widescreen compositions, Dante Farretti’s fine production design, Robert Guerra’s expert art direction, Ann Roth and Carlo Poggioli’s convincing costumes and the eclectic choice of music that includes evocative songs and properly supportive instrumentals by Gabriel Yared. The authentic look of the piece is especially impressive given the fact that it was made, for the most part, in Romania.
But in the final analysis good taste takes Minghella only so far. “Cold Mountain” is a respectable, sporadically powerful picture, an admirable effort to turn a difficult novel into a film that succeeds in cinematic terms. But in the present instance the director doesn’t treat the subject of repressed desire–which is, after all the theme that runs through all his films–as successfully as he did in “Ripley” (though, I would argue, better than he did in “Patient”); nor does the picture fully overcome the weakness of Kidman in its pivotal role. As a result this “Mountain” stands as one of those serious, high-minded pictures that it’s easy to admire from a respectful distance but difficult to be moved by in a visceral way.