Directed by Anthony Minghella. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Kathy Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack White. (2003, R, 155 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Dec. 26, 2003
It takes a lot to make a seated – and crabby – film critic go weak at the knees, but Anthony Minghella’s Civil War epic did just that with one of the swooniest celluloid kisses I’ve seen in a good long while. The kiss is freighted with tragedy, as all the best movie kisses are. It involves a refined Southern woman named Ada (Kidman), newly arrived in the North Carolina town of Cold Mountain with her preacher father (Sutherland), and a local man, Inman (Law), a Confederate volunteer on his way to war. Inman and Ada barely know each other – their love is built on furtive glances and a few halting conversations – but Ada and Inman know, as only lovers in movies do, and they know that their kiss better count, as it’s the last they’ll share before Inman heads off to unspeakable horrors. Unspeakable, yes, but not unfilmable: Cold Mountain begins (out of order) with a re-creation of the battle of Petersburg, in which the Union army burrowed underground and blew up the Confederate encampment. That atrocity was matched then by the crater created by the blast, which trapped the Union soldiers in a living grave. The minutes-long set-piece marks one of the most impressive battle re-creations since Saving Private Ryan’s landmark D-Day re-enactment, and Cold Mountain’s warfare is just as brutalizing to watch. It’s no wonder, then, that the gravely wounded Inman decides, post-Petersburg and at the written urging of Ada, to be done with the war, whether or not he gets his discharge. Inman deserts his regiment and begins the months-long trek home on foot. The journey is rendered in an episodic manner (during which Inman bumps into more cameo celebrities – Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi – than you can shake a US Weekly at). Meanwhile, Cold Mountain is menaced by a Home Guard on order to shoot first, ask questions later; Ada’s father has died, leaving her penniless; and their farm has fallen into disrepair. Although no amount of grubbing up can diminish Kidman’s beauty, her character arc can be traced in Ada’s waxing and waning luminescence. She begins prewar radiant, dims some when she’s forced to pawn her father’s pocket watch for a spot of pork, and grows bright again when she embraces the farming life. That final transformation has everything to do with the arrival of Ruby Thewes (Zellweger), a no-nonsense mountain woman who moves in with Ada and teaches her how to work the land. Zellweger’s entrance, trumpeted with dirty nails and a cornpone accent, is initially guffaw-inducing, but give her time: The actress metamorphoses from a country cliché into a living, breathing, and terribly endearing presence. Ultimately, there are two love stories beating loudly at the heart of Cold Mountain – between Ada and Inman, and between Ada and Ruby – and it is the second that ultimately proves the most rewarding. Kidman and Law have a powerful chemistry (dodgy accents aside), but rarely do they share the screen; their individual storylines are too epic to make much room for the intimacies and idiosyncrasies of romantic love. And Minghella’s film is epic with a capital E, a throwback to the time of David Lean, when a filmmaker knew how to fill a frame. Cold Mountain is gorgeous and operatic, but also not unafraid of quiet, of understatement. In a film crammed with thundering monologues and wide-angle, sweeping shots of snowy vistas and decimated battlefields, perhaps the most stunning moment comes at the hand of veteran actress Eileen Atkins, who slaughters a beloved goat to feed a starving Inman. Cooing to her pet as she slits its jugular, Atkins reminds us, in a smattering of minutes, of film’s marvelous potential to connect viscerally with the audience. The potential is always there, but the realization is rare. Cold Mountain is a rare achievement, indeed.