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Dustin Putman

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Cold Mountain (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Anthony Minghella
Cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Brendan Gleeson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, James Gammon, Charlie Hunnam, Ethan Suplee, Jack White, Ray Winstone, Eileen Atkins, Lucas Black, Jena Malone, Taryn Manning, Melora Walters, Emily Deschanel, Kristen LaPrade
2003 – 155 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence, sex, and nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 23, 2003.

Miramax's latest annual bid for Oscar voters, "Cold Mountain" is a lushly photographed war-torn love story with an amazing pedigree of big talents both behind and in front of the camera. This fact, however, turns out to be a double-edged sword for the expansive cast; while the actors do what they can, every role down to the smallest is, on one level or another, filled by a recognizable face. The film stops being about the characters and their personal journeys and starts being a guessing game as to what established star will pop up in the next scene, spout off a half-dozen lines or so, and make their exit. It doesn't help that the central love story that is supposed to be the major pulling force of the plot comes off as undernourished and largely unconvincing. At almost every turn, "Cold Mountain" is an ill-conceived adaptation of the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier.

The time is 1864, as the South is dangerously close to losing the Civil War. Every day of every year that Infantryman Inman (Jude Law) has been gone from his home in North Carolina, he has managed to stay alive in order to once again see Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), a woman whom he shared little time with but knows is his one true love. Following a grisly battle that leaves him badly injured, Inman recuperates in a hospital just long enough to be able to desert the war and make his way across the North Carolina terrain back to Ada. Hot on his heels are a group of "home guards" (led by Ray Winstone) who have begun scouring the countryside in an attempt to find and kill the deserters.

Meanwhile, back in the farming community of Cold Mountain, Ada has prayed for Inman's return. Although she is unsure how someone she only met a few times could have such an impact on her life, she knows that she loves him. When Ada's beloved father (Donald Sutherland) dies, she is left with a farm that she has no idea how to run. Help arrives in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), a rugged straight-talker who doesn't become Ada's hired hand as much as she insists on being treated like an equal. As the summer season turns to winter, and they work together on keeping the farm up to speed, Ada and Ruby develop a close friendship just as they both need it most.

Written and directed by Anthony Minghella (1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), "Cold Mountain" has all the ingredients needed to make a great motion picture, but it somehow never falls into place. The first forty-five minutes are deceptive in that they actually do hint at a masterpiece in the making. Interweaving the individual moments in which Ada and Inman formed their love for each other before the war with the bloody Virginia battle that becomes the turning point for Inman's decision to escape something he no longer believes in, the opening act is deeply involving and randomly heartbreaking in a way that is difficult to describe in words. The battle scene, violent, messy, and uncompromising in its portrayal, ranks as one of the most effective ever put on film. The sequences that set up Ada and Inman's relationship are also remarkably well crafted, mixing poetic unspoken emotions with a level of beautifully modulated symbolism. Unfortunately, this nearly flawless setup gives way to a forthcoming 100 minutes that disturbingly unravels at the seams before your very eyes.

The two alternating story threads—Inman on his quest home as he meets a series of quirky individuals, and Ada and Ruby dealing with the farm as they view the effects the war has had in their town—are episodic and occasionally border on wacky. All of the people Inman comes into contact with, from a sex-crazed minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to a kindly hermit who saves him from death (Eileen Atkins), to a grungy prostituting family, to a mournful young mother (Natalie Portman), are too colorful by a half to be believable. In a film that is set in an all-too-real time and place, the supporting characters are inappropriate in their offbeat artificiality. Back on the homefront, things fall apart at precisely the moment Ruby makes her appearance at Ada's farm. Renee Zellweger (2002's "Chicago") is one of the freshest and best actresses working today, and does her best at energizing the proceedings and giving spunk to her part. It is not Zellweger's fault, then, that Ruby is the most out of place of them all, the type of sassy, tell-it-like-it-is comic relief that can only be found in the world of movies, and should never have been in this one. She does not gel well at all with her co-stars, and certainly doesn't fit the otherwise dramatic tone of the film.

Instead of building tension and hope that they will rekindle their romance, the longer Inman and Ada are kept apart, the less power the love story between them becomes. One of the most calamitous reasons for this is that Inman and Ada are bland creations, all the more so when standing next to the other characters, and they do not share the chemistry needed for the story to successfully resonate. Throughout the picture, Ada questions in voice-over why she has fallen so helplessly for a man she hardly knows, and the viewer comes to ask the same thing. Any way you shake it, the romance is limp beyond repair.

As Ada, Nicole Kidman (2002's "The Hours") turns in one of her weakest performances in years. Kidman isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but she doesn't have a firm grasp on the role. Her accent is the worst offender; she comes off sounding like an Aussie trying to speak southern for the first time. As Inman, Jude Law (2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence") doesn't make much impact at all. The supporting cast, as previously noted, distractingly ham it up. Among them, only Natalie Portman (1999's "Anywhere But Here") stands out, but her part of a lonely mother searching for another adult human connection is a thankless one.

"Cold Mountain" is great for one-third of its running time, and woefully misguided the rest of the time. The inevitable reunion between Ada and Inman should have stood as the peak moment of the film—after all, this is what the entire picture has been building to—but it comes off as more of a whimper. There is no denying that, in bringing this literary work to the screen, the best people in the business got involved. The sweeping cinematography by John Seale (2003's "Dreamcatcher") is simply gorgeous, and the sumptuous production design by Dante Ferretti (2002's "Gangs of New York") is superb. "Cold Mountain" is a technical triumph, to be sure, but it is just as lacking in pure soul. Everything is too cute and impassive, and if you can't believe in the characters and relationships put on the screen, how can you believe in the film itself? Regrettably, not much at all.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman