Sixty-some years after Scarlett O’Hara clutched that handful of earth and swore she would never go hungry again, another Southern belle suffers at the hands of Civil War barbarities.
Ada Monroe in “Cold Mountain” is left destitute on a farm after her minister father dies and she has to let the slaves go. She looks out over the cold, barren land and closes her eyes in misery. Slowly she intones the name of her loved one, who is at that moment fighting on a distant battlefield. Then she turns to go back inside the house and the camera lingers on the door that she closes behind her.
“Cold Mountain” is a richly hued, gorgeously lit war epic, crammed with incident and crowned with a love story. Contrary to how this sounds, the tone is ultimately more philosophical than melodramatic, marching to the tune of: war is hell, men are fools, thank God for women and their damage-control abilities.
Indeed, most of the men in “Cold Mountain” are a pretty useless lot: uncouth and sadistic, shiftless and irresponsible, absent-minded or just plain absent. There are no heroes among the men — only survivors. Meanwhile the women hold the fort, restore the farms and care for the sick. A personal favorite is a much-tried, goatherd granny who lives alone in a hut and hold that goats are far superior to men: “They provide milk, skin, meat, warmth and companionship. Name me a man who’s half as good.” The film belongs to a feisty, fiery mountain child named Ruby (Renee Zellweger, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), who seems to be channeling the indomitable spirit of Scarlett. When she snaps the head off a chicken with calm dignity or announces: “Ah don’t hold with readin’. Ye can’t eat books!” before stalking off to pull out some weeds, you find yourself saying almost unconsciously: “You go, girl”
Ah, Southern women and their bravery! The men, on the other hand, are intent on their own business, which is to tear each other’s heads off in the name of civil liberty. During the first half-hour, the male citizens of Cold Mountain, N.C., gleefully march off to “kill me some Yankees” and most are never seen alive again. Among the crowd is a figure who keeps looking back — this is W.P. Inman (Jude Law), who has just struck up a shy relationship of sorts with Ada (Nicole Kidman). They had exchanged tin-type photos and their first kiss before saying goodbye, and hoped their time apart will be a brief one — it turns out that they don’t set eyes on each other for the next three years.
“Cold Mountain” is based on a novel by Charles Frazier and is directed by Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), and who better than than that master of adaptation, an expert painter of moods and layered subtexts, to depict this arduous romance, set against a backdrop of violence, vengeance and mayhem.
The opening scenes show how the Yankees have hidden explosives under the mats of sleeping Confederate soldiers — at dawn, the latter wake to their own screams and the sky raining blood and mud. Five minutes later the Southerners discover that the Union army has run itself into a crater made by its own explosions and whoop with joy before embarking on a wild shooting spree (“It’s a turkey shoot!”). Through it all, Inman clutches Ada’s photo close to his chest — he must live, if only to see her again. Meanwhile, Ada sends him letter after letter and the most recent one reaches Inman as he lies wounded in a military hospital. “Come back to me,” she writes. “Stop fighting and come back to me.” So Inman deserts an army and sets out on foot back to Cold Mountain.
Inman’s journey is what gives “Cold Mountain” its momentum. He hardly speaks or expresses emotions with the exception of that one kiss, and his longing for Ada translates to the motions of his feet, the determination apparent in the gaunt muscles of his back. On the way, he runs into people who either aid him or harm him, from a nameless girl — who agrees to take him on board her boat, and then is unceremoniously shot by the army patrol — to a philandering preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who asks to accompany Inman and then gets shot. (Obviously none of Inman’s abettors have his knack for dodging bullets.)
Inman also dispenses his share of violence, and commits murder that’s not always in self-defense. He’s not proud of this, nor of his activities on the battlefield, and the deep despair with all that he has done and seen is stamped on his face. Law’s performance is understated but very effective — without the aid of much explanatory dialogue, he pumps blood into this difficult character, conveying a personality that’s compelling and true.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for what Kidman brings to Ada. She’s the one snag in “Cold Mountain.” In a story about deprivation, desperation and hunger, Ada never stops looking like a movie star who’s wandered into a hick town by mistake (trailed by a makeup person carting suitcases full of designer threads). In a movie in which everyone else is hungry, dying or deprived, she definitely has trouble blending in. Unlike Inman or Ruby (or heck, Scarlett) she never really comes to life. After about 40 minutes in her company, you keep waiting for her to warm to the story, but she remains strangely aloof, causing you to agree enthusiastically when Inman, on his journey home, says sadly to himself: “I’m traveling all this way . . . and I hardly know her.”
It’s a relief (for us) when one day Ruby turns up on Ada’s doorstep, offering to teach her the basics of farming and cooking before she starves to death. At the screening, the audience exploded into chuckles when Ruby took in Ada (her glittering blonde hair in artistic straggles, her dress probably hot off the runway of Gaultier’s grunge collection) with one long look and said: “Well, ah expect yer gonna have a lot to learn.” Too bad the film was over before Ruby’s lessons could really sink in.