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July 15, 2004
Guillermo del Toro turns his hand and screenwriting abilities to this adaptation of the Dark Horse Comic books.
Ron Perlman plays the lead, clearly having had to spend vast amounts of time in makeup, with terrific results. The film has pretty much everything you'd expect – Evil Nazi plot to destroy the world, excellent action and fight sequences, explosions and special effects aplenty.
Disengage critical faculties and go along for the ride. Piles of nonsensical fun.
There's something about the American Civil War which has resulted in it becoming a rich seam for authors to mine for novels, and for films. Of the latter, Cold Mountain is the latest in a long line of which the most famous is Gone With The Wind. Older readers :-) may recall a 1985 TV mini-series called 'North and South' which helped to launch the career of none other than Patrick Swayze.
Directed by Anthony Minghella, with cinematography by John Seale (both of whom have worked together before, most notably on The English Patient), Cold Mountain is based on the book by Charles Frazier and tells the story of two journeys. One is a harsh trek homeward; the other psychological, of growth and personal development.
Ada (played by Nicole Kidman) is a genuine Southern belle, raised by her father – a minister – as a well educated companion. She is an accomplished pianist and is well versed in the classics and literature. Removed from her life in Charleston when his sickness mandates they move to rural North Carolina, together they settle on a farm in a small community on the slopes of the titular mountain.
Admist that community lives W P Inman (or Inman as his friends call him, played by Jude Law) – a carpenter and labourer by trade and an honest and respectable man. Mutual attraction soon brings the two of them together, although the moments they have together are few and short.
Ada's father does not object to their relationship such as it is; instead, it is the outbreak of Civil War which pulls them apart, as Inman volunteers (along with most of the other men of the community) to join the Confederate Army, entering the fray when war is finally declared. Indeed, most of the relationship between Inman and Ada develops through letters they send to each other, the majority of which are never delivered. This is, after all, a time of war. As the credits open, the film begins with an exerpt from a letter she has written to him.
These pieces are dotted throughout the film, set as a romantic contrast to the literal nature of the Civil War – a violent and bloody conflict which inflicted brutal injuries upon both sides. Between them Minghella and Seale bring this ruthlessly (but not gratuitously) to life. The opening scenes of the film lead up to the Battle of the Crater (which took place on July 30th, 1864 in Petersburg). One of the more gruesome confrontations of the war, it started when union soldiers completed a tunnel underneath a confederate munitions dump, setting charges which caused a massive explosion. The victory was pyrrhic and short-lived, however, since the subsequent charge of the union army into the massive crater that resulted degenerated into bloody farce as the remaining confederate troops (occupying the higher ground outside the crater) regrouped and wrecked a violent revenge upon the union troops as they foundered within it. There are no punches pulled in this sequence – whilst it may come from the same stock, Gone with the Wind this film is most assuredly not.
What also becomes apparent very quickly is that this is not a story about the causes and politics which led to the civil war – there is no mention of the Crittenden Compromise for example, or the secession of the Southern States. Only very passing reference is made to the abolitionist cause and only very indirectly (when we learn that Ada and her father have freed their slaves). During the opening battle scenes, a bloody fight is seen taking place between a native american indian (fighting on the side of the confederates) and a black union soldier, yet little is made of the real underlying tragedy of this battle between two men who perhaps by rights should have been allies, rather than enemies.
Personal tragedy soon besets Ada, culminating in a written plea to Inman – in summary, return home from the front, you are needed here – which he receives whilst recuperating from injuries he's received during a heroic attempt to save a friend during battle. This sounds rather corny when written down, but much work is done to build the character of Inman in the viewers eyes through the early stages of the film as both a brave and honorable man, so that his next decision – to desert the confederate army and begin the long trek home to Ada and Cold Mountain – is seen in a positive light and not as a cowardly or weak decision.
So begin the journeys: Inman, on his 300 mile trek home; Ada, learning to cope with the much harsher world she finds herself within. As he travels, Inman meets a range of characters, some who help him, others who hinder. We witness his capture and escape from confederate soldiers rounding up deserters and the many and varied inhumanities the war and southern society has inflicted on the innocents he encounters. Ada faces challenges of her own: in learning to cope with the harsher life, and also in facing the violence and injustice committed against her own community by the home guard, who in seeking out deserters impose the most cruel and inhuman punishments against those who have aided them, often for arbitrary reasons.
Cold Mountain is something of a Starfest. Aside from Law and Kidman, Renee Zellweger plays Ruby, the practical and headstrong young woman who helps Ada cope without Inman to hand. Donald Sutherland is Ada's father; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, truly excellent in portraying a rather less virtuous minister encountered by Inman on his journey home; Natalie Portman, and Ray Winstone, as a thoroughly unsavoury officer of the North Carolinan home guard; all put in memorable performances.
The film is also unmistakable as a Minghella/Seale enterprise and the cinematography, in particular, is stunning. Much of the picture was shot in the Carpathian mountains (which apparently bear a remarkable resemblance to 19th century Carolina) and much is made of the majesty and scale of the countryside, with great success – there is no doubt left in the viewers mind over the scale of the journey which Inman is undertaking in order to return home.
On the whole the acting is excellent, although Zellweger does slightly over-egg the 'rough diamond' pudding at times. Thankfully, this does not detracts too much from the film, and it does have a certain charm which mostly excuses it. The soundtrack is also excellent, adding the right notes of drama and levity without being overpowering or forced – amidst the darkness, there are moments of humour and comedy to lighten the mood.
Like all good Civil War stories, Cold Mountain does not have an entirely happy ending. Tragedy strikes Inman and Ada at the moment they should be happiest and just as she believes she has finally understood the meaning of a much earlier omen. The film does end on a more upbeat note, but it is tempered by this.
Cold Mountain lost out at the Oscars – nominated for seven, it was pipped to the post on most counts by the final piece of Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Had timing been different, it would likely have done much better. Provided you don't find the topic of the American Civil war onerous, you should find this an enjoyable and rewarding experience.