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Cold Mountain

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Cold Mountain

Starring: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman
Director: Anthony Minghella
Rated: R
RunTime: 155 Minutes
Release Date: December 2003
Genres: Romance, Drama, War

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

"Cold Mountain" is an anti-war movie, but what else is new? Aristophanes made clear his pro-peace outlook when in "Lysistrata," the women locked their husbands out of their bedrooms until they laid down their swords. Outside of Hitler, who said that war brings forth the noblest emotions of a people, almost everybody would happily give up fighting if the objectives sought could be resolved peacefully.

Or would they? After all, if we're to believe Charles Frazier, whose long-term best-selling novel, "Cold Mountain," is adapted for the screen by director Anthony Minghella, quite a few people are so bored that they're itching to put on a uniform. In one North Carolina area in 1861, some happy men burst in on a religious service yelping for joy: "We got our war!" they cried, as though the consequences would be no more violent than those of a game of tennis.

"Cold Mountain" takes us into the lives of a diverse group of people who lived amid the gorgeous mountains of the Carolinas; folks who were not necessarily political and not for the most part involved in the slave trade. They might rationally have welcomed a defeat at the hands of the North, but while they shook their fists in their desire to meet and inflict heavy blows on "the Yankees" albeit without really feeling the intense commitment to the status quo of the South's plantation economy, some would inevitably desert just like the Americans who fled to Canada and Sweden during the days of the Vietnam War; some cowards, perhaps, but mostly young people who had no idea why we were fighting in an Asian civil war.

"Cold Mountain," which depicts not so much the battle scenes but the home lives of these mountain people, is painted by Minghella on an epic canvas, the drop-dead gorgeous scenery in Romania filmed quite nicely by John Seale in an area which the production company found to be more 19th-Century like than anything they found in the deforested areas of North America. (If the Romanian government wants to turn this topography into a parking lot, just let the present U.S. administration get a hold of the environment in that poverty-stricken East European preserve.)

The film, which soon takes us into the only battle scene that could in the slightest way be compared to Akira Kurosawa's in "Ran" or Edward Zwick's in "The Last Samurai," is based like the rest of the story on actual circumstances-- the big battle on a plan by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to wipe out a Confederate fortification by building a tunnel under their base, planting a mine directly below the fort, and blowing a gap in Confederate defenses. Because of the confusion of the Northern troops, the Union Army division fell into a quagmire like a golf ball in a sand trap, getting wiped out while taking considerate casualties.

Minghella, whose "The English Patient" seven years ago honed in on a man badly burned in a World War II plane crash in the African desert, displays his signature style in this leisurely- paced reflection on life within the battle zones, but for the most part he concentrates on the periphery to show how ordinary people as well as soldiers fared during a bloody war made all the more horrendous for its fratricidal nature. Flashing backwards and forwards albeit with proper restraint, Minghella has us watch Inman (Jude Law) fall in love with an elegant, urban-bred woman, Ada (Nicole Kidman), who gives him a picture to take to the battlefields and who with understandable anxiety awaits his return. While he's gone, Ada's father (Donald Sutherland) unexpectedly dies, leaving Ada without a clue on how to run a farm, at least until she is offered the help of a salt- of-the-earth, feisty ball of energy in the form of the tough Ruby (Renee Zellweger) who teaches her how to run a farm and a household.

While the lives of Ada and Ruby form a backdrop, the major interest is in the odyssey undertaken by Inman who deserts, terminally homesick for the land he loves and the woman he can't get out of his mind. Walking scores, perhaps hundreds of miles to get back to his beloved Cold Mountain in North Carolina, he encounters more experiences than the cast of "The Fantasticks," both friend and foe. Among the former are a woman who for money ferries people in trouble across a river, a disgraced minister, Rev. Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who helps Inman to escape, a young and beautiful widow, Sara (Natalie Portman), who shares her bed with him while at the mercy of Northern raiders and Southern bounty hunters, and a goat keeper, Maddy (Eileen Atkins), who may be a metaphoric guardian angel. Chief among the latter is a team of Home Guard, military police from hell, led by the treacherous Teague (Ray Winstone), whose chief job is to ferret out and execute Confederate deserters and those who harbor them.

There is one randy scene, such as that framed by the cabin of a redneck, Junior (Giovannie Ribisi), whose harem, demoralized by the war, engage in orgies that would make the denizens of Plato's Retreat blush.

"Cold Mountain" does give its audience the feel of the front, but particularly of the home lives of poor people who unlike the inhabitants of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" wouldn't know a plantation from a modern parking lot and who should rationally be opposed to the values maintained by the Confederate Armies. History books tell us, nonetheless, that these folks favored the maintenance of the institution of slavery, allowing them to have at least one group they could look down upon. The mountain scenery away from the fighting front could have come out of the Austrian Alps of "The Sound of Music" in a lengthy picture which features credible acting by Law, Kidman, Zellweger and company but which in the final analysis is one more to be respected than loved.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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