Cold Mountain Movie Review

From the very first words of its opening voice-over, inwhich a detectable trace of Aussie inflection invades Nicole Kidman's affectedSouthern accent, there's something amiss with "Cold Mountain,"a two-and-a-half-hour Civil War epic built around a lackluster love story,written and directed by an Englishman, starring half a dozen British actorsand shot in Romania.

Sweeping in scope, the picture's earnest intentions, periodatmosphere and cinematic beauty are above reproach as it portrays brutal,bloody, brother-against-brother battlefields and a North Carolina home-fronthamlet where prim, city-bred newcomer Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) waitsfor the return of her soldier sweetheart while struggling to survive onher dead father's farm.

And yet, the emotional investment in the characters issomething less than sweeping. The passionless decorum of Ada's first-reelcourtship by the adoring but reticent Inman (Jude Law), the declarationof war which cuts short their time together, and the questionable castingof Kidman -- who at 36 is too old to be credible as a bashful unmarriedbelle in 1864 Dixie -- result in a lack of validity and vitality that isn'tremedied until the invigorating second-act arrival of Renee Zellweger.

Filling the screen and the withered farm fields with herdaringly pungent, force-of-nature performance as a grubby, lowborn drifternamed Ruby, she's an innate field-hand-for-hire with a permanently puckeredmotormouth and an outdoorsy, arm-swinging stride who turns up on Ada'sdoorstep seeking room and board in exchange for teachin' the bucolic tenderfootsome fundamental hard lessons of survival and self-sufficiency.

Zellweger is just one of many sublime co-stars who upstagethe film's romantic leads. Brendan Gleeson ("Gangsof New York," "28Days Later") soon arrives on the sceneas Ruby's formerly abusive daddy who'd "walk forty miles for liquor,but not forty inches for kindness," and who is now a Confederate deserterlooking for a handout and a place to hide. Kathy Baker ("TheGlass House") is memorably poignant asa neighbor whose sons' desertion leads to terrible consequences administeredby a malevolent sheriff (Ray Winstone).

In the parallel story, a battle-injured Inman goes AWOLhimself, recognizing the futility of the South's continued combat. Riskingexecution to be reunited with Ada, he begins an arduous, perilous journeyhome, meeting up with the movie's biggest scene-stealers along the way.The inspired Philip Seymour Hoffman is an amusing but deservedly disgracedpreacher on the run from a lynch mob, and the absolutely heartbreakingNatalie Portman is a war widow with a new baby who takes Inman into herramshackle cabin out of both kindness and romantic despair.

Giovanni Ribisi, Jena Malone, Eileen Atkins and DonaldSutherland (as Ada's father) also have small but memorable roles, and witheach of these performances one thing becomes abundantly clear: When allof your supporting characters are more compelling and charismatic thanyour leads, your movie is in trouble.

But Kidman and Law aren't the problem, per se. She capturesAda's pride, determination and resilient faith in the face of harsh adversitywith enough courage to almost forgive the makeup artist who keeps her lookingabsurdly fresh and beautiful for the circumstances. Law smolders with similarperseverance and lends Inman's reserve a war-weary dignity.

Given a more focused and personal story, a less momentousbackdrop and fewer peripheral characters, these two potent actors couldhave effectively developed the unspoken infatuation that blossoms betweenAda and Inman into a tender relationship of agonizing separation. But thelonging in their letters, read as narration, just isn't enough to drawyou into their romance.

Director AnthonyMinghella ("The English Patient," "TheTalented Mr. Ripley"), who also adaptedthe screenplay from Charles Frazier's novel, does many things well in "ColdMountain," including portraying the horrors of 19th century warfarewith disconcerting breadth and precision. The most powerful moment in themovie is actually on the battlefield when an American Indian fighting forthe Confederacy and a black man fighting for the Union come face to face,with blades drawn and fire in their eyes, and share a sudden, sorrowful,silent and fleeting epiphany that they are both pawns in a white man'swar.

But these characters are barely a token afterthought ofthe larger story, which never fulfills its outsized ambitions. "ColdMountain" leaves a cornucopia of such brilliant small moments andsupporting performances frustratingly isolated in the corners of Minghella'sotherwise unfruitful fields.


Cold Mountain Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, Thursday, December 25, 2003


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