Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain

cover art for Cold Mountain the filjmThe promotional material for Anthony Minghella’s stately film version of Charles Frazier’s award winning novel makes the following claim: “…Cold Mountain sets off on a true American odyssey through a time that saw some of the greatest ferocity — and heroism — the nation has ever known.” And in a very real sense, this is true. Frazier’s framework and themes are dependant on Homer’s tales of Ulysses. Gone away to war, urged to return to the woman he loves, distracted by various adventures, and finally finding his way back, Ulysses becomes Inman and the War Between the States fills in for the Trojan War. Ada Monroe replaces Penelope, and a variety of miscreant backwoodsmen fill in for all the rest of Homer’s characters.

Wait jus’ a bleedin’ minute! Wasn’t you tellin’ me dat the uvver movie, the one wif George Clooney, was based on the Odyssey? Now this one’s based on the Odyssey? I thought th’ Odyssey mus’ be a @#$%in’ comedy. I laffed so @#$%in’ hard watchin’ O Bruvver Wherefore Art Thou!

Oh, Spike, yes, well … what I’m saying is … both films used Homer’s Odyssey as a source. To provide a framework to tell the story that they wanted to tell.

@#$% me! If I wuz to write a song, usin’ a Chuck Berry riff, to ‘tell the @#$%in’ story I wanted to tell’ I’d get hit wif a plagiarism suit before you could say, “Bob’s yer @#$%in’ uncle!” But in the MOVIES it’s alright to do whaever you bleedin’ want.

Well, there are poetic liberties taken with the material, and only the framework is borrowed from the classics.

Oh! Only the bloody framework is ‘borrowed’, nice! What about poor ole George Harrison? He subconsciously ‘borrowed’ a bit of a melody and ‘ad to pay through the nose!

That’s not really the point here, Spike. We’re supposed to talk about the movie, which, by the way begins with a long and brutal Civil War battle rivalling the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan in the way it places the viewer into the centre of the battle. We see the blood and gristle of war, the fear, the spontaneous bravery, instant savagery, horrible tragedy.

Yeah! An’ it’s the most excitin’ part of the flick too!

Yes, the film is fairly slow-paced once this action is out of the way. But there’s a lot to think about. The beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the violent nature of man, the indomitable spirit of woman. The essence of love.

@#$% man, what are you smokin’? You didn’t even like this movie!

No, you’re right, I came away with an empty feeling. As though I’d had a large bowl of consomme, which was tasty, warm and satisfying, but left me wanting something more substantial when it was all over. The film is very beautiful. Minghella knows how to move the cameras, how to light a scene, how to edit. And many of the supporting actors give outstanding performances. Renee Zellweger is wonderful as Ruby, the backwoods farmgirl who comes to lend a hand at Ada’s farm.

She’s the squinty-eyed one right? Bridgit Jones? I like her!

The choice of Jude Law and Nicole Kidman for the leads is a strange one. These two actors are icy and remote. How they could develop such an all-encompassing love for each other after meeting, was it three times? And exchanging a dozen words … it just doesn’t make sense. But worse, a Londoner and an Aussie doing North Carolina drawls is utter foolishness. Law and Kidman both seem far too contemporary, too new-millennial for these parts. Everyone else, Donald Sutherland as the Reverend Monroe (Kidman’s father), Brendan Gleeson as Ruby’s Pa, Giovanni Ribisi as Junior, Ray Winstone as Teague are all excellent. Natalie Portman delivers a knockout performance as a lonely war widow with a small sick baby; and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s womanizing Preacher Veasey is fantastic. Even Jack White gives a believable performance. These smaller roles, and the sequences in which they appear, lift the film for a time only to drop it back into fantasy when the main story takes precedence.

Wot? That was @#$%in’ Jack White? Un@#$%in-believable!

The basic story is, that Inman (Law) is wounded at this horrible battle; as he recuperates he thinks about the back story, and through flashbacks we see how he has reached this point. He see the futility of the war, and fearing for the safety of his beloved Ada (Kidman) [whom he has known for about eight minutes] he deserts and tries to make his way back to the Monroe farm on Cold Mountain. He is beset by treachery, aided by a witch, betrayed by someone he helps, helped by someone he betrayed, dogged by the Home Guard who are on the lookout for deserters. Many of these scenes are exciting and compelling. And then he sits and dreams about Ada.

I like the bit where they cut up the cow! That wuz really grisly!

Miss Monroe’s life is not easy either. She is a city girl who came to Cold Mountain for her father’s health. Donald Sutherland plays the minister/father with his usual dignity and style. Unfortunately he passes away, leaving Ada to fend for herself as the war escalates. Renee Zellweger’s Ruby appears, to help Ada eke out a living on the farm. The money runs out, but Ruby manages to survive, sewing winter coats out of old horse blankets. She uses a ratty old grey one for herself, and a pattern from Armani to create Ms. Kidman’s stunning black pantsuit with matching wide brim fedora.

I wondered about that! Di’n’t Nicole look more glowing an’ beautiful at the end of the movie, after she’d been starving than she did at the beginning…all pasty an’ white?

I suppose we shouldn’t expect realism in a film that is essentially fantasy. That two people should fall so hopelessly in love after a courtship that takes place at a distance and over only a few passing moments is a romantic notion that has provided the impetus for hundreds of novels. Somehow the idea works better on paper than on film. Especially when the director has gone to so much trouble to make the setting real. On film when you deal with historical events, the viewer has to believe in the reality of what he sees. He has to accept it. In an over the top film, like The Matrix or even PeeWee’s Big Adventure, you suspend your own reality, and accept the filmmakers’ reality. That’s why the Lord of the Rings films were so successful, because Peter Jackson managed to so convincingly portray a radically different world.

Wait jus’ a minute…wasn’t PeeWee’s Big Adventure an odyssey too? I’m begining to get the idea now! An’ The Matrix too? Is Frodo really Ulysses? @#$%! I’ve just ‘ad an epiphany!!!

But, in what seems like a realistic film, you have to be careful to make your characters react and respond in realistic ways; ways that don’t clash with the reality in which they are functioning. Ada and Inman seem to belong in a different plane. They have their own reality. And it colours the way WE view their world. And I didn’t find it convincing at all.

@#$% MAN YOU THINK TOO MUCH! Didja enjoy the film or not?

Well, I enjoyed parts of it. The music was quite good, and as I said, there were many very good performances. Several sequences were rivetting … but the big story was not convincing. I didn’t care about these two characters. I was rooting for Ruby, and for her father and poor Jack White. The fact that THEY managed to survive all this terror meant more to me than whatever happened to Ada and Inman. I didn’t read the book, but I understand there were substantial changes made for the film. But in print, because you bring your own imagination to the interpretation, you can accept different levels of reality. You are creating the images as you go.

You know … Ada an’ Inman jus’ needed a li’l bunk time togevuh! Maybe you should consider gettin’ out of this office more often, Dave!

You know Spike, I looked forward to this film. I wasn’t thrilled with the casting of a Londoner as a Blue Ridge Mountaineer; or an Aussie as a Georgia Peach, but I looked forward to the film. The opening sequence was thrilling, but as the odyssey came closer to its end, and the inexorable tragedy of the reunion neared, I found myself becoming more uncomfortable, shifting in my seat, finding holes in the story.

Yeah, I must say, the seats at the Westdale Theatre are lumpy!

And when Nicole Kidman stood on the road, seeing the ultimate personification of her vision coming through the snow, looking radiant in her designer pantsuit, my heart fell, and I thought “What a load of…”

Don’t say it Dave! That’s my job! It was a @#$%in’ steamin’ pile of ^&*%, wuzn’t it!

Spike, I think you’ve said it. It’s a couple hours and a few dollars I wish I had back.

(Miramax Films, 2003)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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