The first question about Cold Mountain on just about everyone’s mind — at least everyone in this part of the world — is whether Romania looks like Western North Carolina. The answer lies in the film’s clear explanation of why Transylvania County was named after Transylvania, Hungary (now part of Romania). Indeed, if you didn’t know Cold Mountain wasn’t shot here, you’d probably think it was. Whether you can overlook the slap of the film not being filmed here is another, trickier question.
My enjoyment of Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain may be in part the result of not having harbored terrifically high expectations. I know Charles Frazier’s novel received tons of critical accolades and made a pile of money, but I absolutely could not force myself through it. Whether it was good or bad wasn’t the issue; it simply didn’t grab me. And that was exactly what I expected to be the case with any film version of it — especially one from Minghella, one of cinema’s most determinedly literary-minded filmmakers.
Minghella is unique among his modern peers; to find anyone similar, you’d have to go back to such Hollywood studio men as Edmund Goulding or, more to the point, Albert Lewin — filmmakers with a heavy literary bias and an apparent grounding more in the written word than in film itself. That’s not always a bad thing, and the world of cinema may be poorer for the current lack of it; yet that approach can also prove tricky, since it too often sacrifices the creative tools of film for those of another medium.
Thankfully, Minghella generally sidesteps this pitfall — at least with Cold Mountain, which manages to capture a sense of literature through cinematic techniques. His success becomes obvious early on, with one of the most breathtaking and horrible depictions of war I’ve ever seen. Contrast the grotesque terror of Minghella’s battle scenes at the opening of Cold Mountain with the glorified choreographic heroics of similar scenes in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, and you’ll see a world of difference.
Minghella gets right into the thick of things, and takes us with him. There’s no glory here, just horror and confusion. And this sets the stage for his approach to the entire film — getting right in there with his characters. That’s no mean trick with a tale this sprawling, and that not only moves around in time — the structure is nonlinear in a literary manner, using memories to show how things reached the point where the viewer steps into the main narrative — but follows two separate stories. It depicts both the journey taken by Inman (Jude Law) from the battlefield to the hospital, to his desertion from the Confederate army and perilous efforts to return to Cold Mountain and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), as well as giving equal time to what happens to Ada as the war drags on.
What’s most surprising is Minghella’s precision in judging the lengths of the various sequences; there’s never a sense of one story taking away from the other, or an impatience to get back to either one. The film simply feels right. And that’s what makes Cold Mountain such an overall-impressive achievement — it feels right.
The movie boasts just the right weightiness without ever succumbing to the kind of airless oppressiveness that marks such recent serious-minded films as Mystic River and House of Sand and Fog. Minghella’s film is actually allowed to breathe — not just because of the inclusion of Renee Zellweger as the outspoken Ruby Thewes (in a performance that ought to assure her of an Oscar). That said, the film does boast an unusually complex — if somewhat traditional — comic-relief character in Ruby (though a good deal of the humor comes as much from Ada’s reactions to Ruby as it comes from Ruby herself).
The entire film manages to weave in lighter moments without diminishing its story, even at the darkest of times (consider the interaction between Inman and the oversexed, hypocritical preacher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Rather, these moments make the film accessible on a human level. Minghella understands that humor and humanity exist side-by-side with tragedy — and that, indeed, they are the very things that allow for tragedy, since without our caring about the fates of the characters, their plights become for us dispassionate events.
That’s never the case here, since the film carefully delineates its major characters, and affords them a sense of reality. It may not be able to quite pull that off with some of the lesser characters: The bad guys — especially the lecherous and downright nasty Teague (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast) — are simplistically drawn. This doesn’t prevent them from working quite well within the confines of the film, since it’s almost impossible not to be drawn down to the level of actually wanting someone to kill them.
Such effective filmmaking makes us see the capacity for those less-than-admirable thoughts buried in ourselves. And this, in part, is what makes Cold Mountain so rich — the film takes a complex, episodic story and builds it into an emotionally satisfying whole.
Cold Mountain works on nearly every level, pulling together nearly perfect production values, gorgeous cinematography, entertaining incidents and a splendid cast that brings its characters to life. In fact, this film might just make me take another crack at reading the novel.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke