Cold Mountain

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Movie Review by Mark Bayross

Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Natalie Portman
Director: Anthony Minghella

Set at the battle-weary end of the American Civil War, COLD MOUNTAIN brings Charles Frazier’s semi-biographical 1997 bestseller to life through the lens of acclaimed director Anthony Minghella.

The story follows the path of two lovers, both very different, who are torn apart far too quickly, but who are so haunted by the memory of each other that they both fight tooth and nail to be together again.

Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the titular North Carolina farming town and immediately begins turning heads. She and her preacher daddy (Donald Sutherland) have moved from Charleston and she immediately stands out as a vision of refined Southern Belle perfection amid the grizzled locals.

But while it is Inman (Jude Law) who catches her eye, the pair are only able to share furtive glances, a couple of awkward conversations and a last-minute clinch before he is dragged away to fight for the Confederacy cause. Inman’s idealism and enthusiasm – along with that of everyone else – begins to wane when the short war they had been predicting, the fight for their beliefs and their way of life, gives way to a protracted and brutal conflict, and the realisation that his side are losing.

Having survived the all-out massacre of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, he takes a bullet in a chaotic friendly fire incident and, convalescing in hospital, receives a letter from Ada pleading for him to return. Risking being shot as a deserter, not to mention his fragile physical and mental state, Inman ups and leaves, beginning an epic odyssey to be reunited with a woman he barely knows. Along the way he encounters a range of characters that both help and hinder his progress, calling for ever greater tests of his will to survive and to be reunited with Ada.

Although she stays in Cold Mountain, Ada’s emotional journey is no less arduous. Her beloved father dies and she is left to fend for herself in an unfamiliar town now devoid of its menfolk save the old and infirm and a gang of ruthless Home Guard enforcers led by the murderous Teague (Ray Winstone on fine villainous form).

Driven to despair by her inability to cope with the rigours of her surroundings, Ada is pulled back from the brink by Ruby (Renee Zellweger), a wholesome down-to-earth country girl who teaches her how to fix fences, work the land and dispatch troublesome roosters.

It is at this point that the film shifts up a gear: Ruby is not only the catalyst of Ada’s transformation into a tough, resilient and resourceful young woman, but she provides much of the comic relief in a film that really needs it by the time she shows up. Zellweger is superb, stomping around Ada’s farm dispensing wisecracks and put-downs, while also developing as a character as Ada helps her to soften her attitude and break down some of the barriers she had constructed following the hardship of her past.

Indeed the performances of everyone are fantastic: Jude Law portrays a man whose spirit refuses to break despite everything fate throws at him, his steely, intense eyes offset by a gruff loner beard that somehow suits his chiselled features; and Nicole Kidman – sporting an uncharacteristic but allegedly authentic high society Charleston accent – is her usual excellent self, letting the audience in to her innermost feelings to such an extent that we can’t fail to root for her all the way.

The three leads are aided by an impressive cast of supporting characters, including Philip Seymour Hoffman in overdrive as a hypocritical minister, Kathy Baker and James Gammon as Ada’s kindly neighbours, Brendan Gleeson as a fiddle-playing army deserter, the normally cherubic Charlie Hunnan as a nefarious squinting albino gunslinger and Jack White of New York blues/rock duo The White Stripes, who acquits himself admirably in such illustrious company. Perhaps the most stunning of the lot is Natalie Portman as a terrified young war widow, a performance so heart-breaking and powerful that it sears into the memory long after the film is over.

Equally as breathtaking is the direction. If you thought Anthony Minghella’s and John Seale’s cinematography was impressive on THE ENGLISH PATIENT, wait till you see this. The opening battle sequence is horrifying and exciting in equal measure, while the views of the soaring mountains and lush valleys of Translyvania (standing in convincingly for mid-19th century North Carolina) are literally jaw-dropping. This film sets a new level in epic beauty.

At over 2½ hours long, COLD MOUNTAIN is not a feelgood movie; it is an epic drama that serves to illustrate the power of the human spirit. These characters have lost everything, but they continue to fight, to survive, for an ideal that seems so abstract – love, be it for family, friends, home or the denial-enhanced passion that binds Inman and Ada so inexorably together.

Set against the superficial transience of modern times, the film’s message could hardly be more relevant.

6 out of 6 stars