COLD MOUNTAIN is saved—just—by one inspired performance and several effective vignettes, but that company of positives fight a mostly losing battle with a battalion of negatives. While many reviews were admiring, a decided grump clump logged the mountain, finding more of a molehill. The Oscars piled on seven nominations, and it was a financial success in 2003, the rare Civil War movie that drew a large crowd.
An Appalachian mountain community in North Carolina, the 1860s. War with The North arrives, and ‘W.P. Inman’ (Jude Law) goes off to fight the Yankees, leaving behind a smitten ‘Ada Monroe’ (Nicole Kidman). Wounded, he deserts in 1864, and makes his hazardous way home, a quasi-Homeric Odyssey through a sundered society. Back in the hills she and her civilian neighbors face privation, including misery dished out by marauding Home Guard ruffians.
The 1997 novel by Charles Frazier pulled acclaim and sold over 3,000,000 copies. He based it on local history and family stories handed down over the years. Maybe it’s a corker of a read. But as scripted by its director, Anthony Minghella, the filmed saga has enough anvil-clang exposition to make you want to break out a cannon. Tripe like having a Reb carpenter whacking a plank with a hammer, saying “I call this nail ‘Northern aggression! ‘” Love passages sink beneath declarations such as “This doesn’t come out right. If it were enough to stand, without the words…. Look at the sky now. What color is it? Or the way a hawk flies. Or you wake up, and your ribs are bruised from thinking so hard on somebody. What do you call that?” Uh, let’s call that pseudo-artsy, faux-folksy gibberish. “Gone With The Flatulence”.
War, especially the ‘civil’ kind, is nothing if not brutal, but after a bravura early sequence of spectacle mayhem—the awful 1864 Battle Of The Crater, during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia—the additional episodes of wanton cruelty and generalized ugliness that decorate the screenplay seem mostly gratuitous. Tone is a problem throughout, starting with basic miscasting, both of actors and geography.
The rolling Appalachian’s of North Carolina bear little resemblance to the extensive location-work, shot in the jagged Carpathian Mountains of Romania, near Brasov in Transylvania. The unlikely love story suffers from a lack of chemistry between the two usually excellent leads, neither of whom, Brit and Aussie, begin to convince as olden days American Southerners. The central motivating force in the narrative leaves next-to-no emotional connection. Diction & friction to the side, her hairstyle doesn’t exactly summon 1864.
For whatever reason, English director Minghella, shooting in Europe, festooned the cast with actors who either have trouble with the accents because they’re not native—Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Eileen Atkins, Cillian Murphy—or, if they are home team, just plain feel out-of-place with the period: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Donald Sutherland. It’s a rough, mostly unpleasant jumble, and a lengthy one at 154 minutes. That darned dialogue, either precious and overblown or just needlessly coarse, is often risible.
Far and away the best thing, both for the story and in its delivery, is the salt-earthy, practical character of ‘Ruby Thewes’, inhabited by Reneé Zellweger like someone who actually paid attention to the historical and regional milieu. Smile-summoning gumption, fierce survivor’s grit and lot-wounded grace, her scene-commanding hill-gal strolled off with an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. She bites into every line she’s given in every scene she thankfully appears. Did she research with Dolly Parton? Almost singlehandledly, she saves the movie.
Aside from Zellwegger’s deserved win, the other six AA-noms went up for Actor (Law), Cinematography, Film Editing, Music Score and two for Song (“The Scarlet Tide” and “You Will Be My Ain True Love”). The nomination for Gabriel Yared’s score is most suspect, as his composed work covered a mere fifteen minutes of film. The laudable cinematography is hewn from the labors of John Seale.
An invested $79,000,000 bankrolled all the hundreds of Romanian extras, the detailed sets, costumes, props and the forty-million alone for combined salaries of Law, Kidman and Zellweger. The flawed, certainly heartfelt and earnest effort—Minghella worked on this for years— was rewarded with surprisingly good box-office receipts of $173,013,000.
With Kathy Bates, Giovanni Ribisi (hamming), Ethan Suplee, Jack White, Emily Deschanel, James Gammon and Charlie Hunnam (poorly conceived role, and, sorry, but that ridiculous backflip belongs in another movie, another era).