by Alexandre Paquin
If there is a film I constantly make a point of avoiding, it is precisely Anthony Minghella's Oscar-winning "epic" "The English Patient." Seven years later, I still haven't seen the film that saw the beginning of Miramax's now notorious method of award campaigning, but based on Minghella's recent atrocity "Cold Mountain," there are very few reasons that recommend the 1996 film to me.Cold Mountain, set in some picture-perfect mountainous area of North Carolina (filmed in Romania), introduces us to Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), a reverend's daughter, who falls in love with carpenter Inman (Jude Law). Soon enough, but not quickly enough, the American Civil War breaks out, Inman enlists, and Ada Monroe's father (the splendid Donald Sutherland) dies. Inman realizes the futility of the Confederate cause, gets tired of being shot at, and decides to desert, while Ada tries to earn a living with the help of some badly introduced girl named Ruby (Renée Zellweger). Many, many, many minutes and a slew of incomprehensible Zellweger lines later, the ending credits thankfully roll across the screen as welcome as the rain after the drought -- but alas, just like the cavalry, too late.
"Fiddle-dee-dee for the New Millennium"
Minghella, a would-be David Lean without the talent, directs the film with all the self-conscious importance that Cold Mountain's subject matter and release date warrant, and, the truth be told, hardly has a film been as pretentious as this one. It is, overall, in the same vein as Gone With the Wind, just a lot worse. The 1939 classic, after all, was mostly a matter of pride, even revenge, for its resolutely independent producer David O. Selznick, who could still muster some sympathy at that point in his career (that was before he inextricably fell into self-pity when he could not match its success). Directors working on Gone With the Wind were expendable, and Clark Gable was contractually bound to play a part he had no interest in. Whatever pretentiousness the other failed Civil War epic of 2003, Gods & Generals, had was confined to its billionaire financial backer and his peculiar view of American history. Cold Mountain, pretentiousness oozes from across the board, from Minghella, who would undoubtedly like to get a second Oscar for the sake of his mantelpiece's symmetry, to the production company that we can all predict will make sure the film gets the respect it doesn't deserve.
In other words, the whole enterprise screams "hey, I'm an important film," and the desire to get award nominations in every conceivable category seems to drive the entire picture, beginning with the unnecessary Zellweger part. And of course, because of a well-known but unwritten golden rule and the fact she did not win an Academy Award for Bridget Jones's Diary (which I have not seen) or Chicago, the actress must inevitably get an Oscar for Cold Mountain. (She could ask her co-star for practical advice on such matters.) I wish this prediction would turn out to be wrong, for the truth is that Zellweger is about as well-cast as Audrey Hepburn was in My Fair Lady. Hepburn had talent but was completely unsuited to playing a working-class woman in, of all film genres, a musical. Whatever Jack Warner was thinking when he cast her in the part instead of Julie Andrews because he wanted a recognizable name proved extremely misguided. Zellweger has a knack for certain types of roles in romantic comedies (for example, she was quite good in Down with Love), but, just as Hepburn, she should never play a basically unsophisticated woman, as in Chicago and to a worse extent here. But somebody just wants that Oscar for Zellweger, and it's paramount -- or rather, Miramax -- even if it means doing so at the detriment of the film itself.
Then there is Nicole Kidman's Ada Monroe, our Scarlett O'Hara for the New Millennium, whose prissiness protrudes from the film like a mushroom from a rotting log. Kidman has a quite luminous profile which makes her naturally endearing, but here, however, whatever hard work she supposedly performs still looks desperately easy, and her demeanor is in complete contradiction with the nature of the part. Life in the Civil War-era rugged wilderness was not, and should not be portrayed as, a picnic, but, not to worry, though our dear Nicole might run out of food and money to the point of starvation and despair, she will never run out of makeup.
In the meantime, Jude Law tries his very best to run back to Ada while escaping from a particularly nasty Southern militia bent on shooting deserters (not to mention running away from the entire Union army). Law is not a bad actor per se, but the fugitive-from-both-sides theme is by now threadbare, and its treatment is, in this particular case, sadly lacking in continuity, and his chemistry with Kidman, as was pointed out by scores of critics, is in the zero range. Movie gossip had it that Nicole Kidman's erstwhile husband, Tom Cruise, had considered playing Inman in Cold Mountain. When they both starred together in film that also strove to make itself dramatically and patriotically relevant because of its historical setting, the result was Far and Away. With that in mind, I would like to say, thanks, Tom, for staying, well, far and away (I may add: in Japan), even if it just proves somebody can make a bad movie without you.
To make things worse, the film's emphasis is wrongly on romance; the film should have made the most of its wilderness setting instead of attempting to portray Inman and Ada as two lovers separated by hundreds of kilometres of pretty landscapes. The unpredictability of nature, instead of the Civil War, should have been the key to this film, but the cold is never biting, the rains are never torrential, and the snow is never a constant threat both to communication networks and to human life, except for the occasional scene. Cinematographer John Seale understands this, but Minghella himself has no clue. What do you make, for instance, of a man who is shot in the middle of the night then left to die in the snow, but is found still alive the following day? Zellweger's character, upon discovering him, tells Ada to hurry because he is bleeding to death, but in such circumstances, it is not the loss of blood but hypothermia that would have dealt the final blow hours before. But here there is enough time to nurse him back to health -- in a film that isn't particularly in a hurry to conclude, individuals must benefit from some sort of extended longevity, I presume.
The Civil War, tidily disposed of in the film's first half hour (which is the best if you exclude the flashbacks) but still raging in the background for the remainder of the picture, is a red herring. After all, while the male population of Cold Mountain seems particularly eager to enlist in the Confederate army, the Southern cause never acquires some sort of relevance like in Gone With the Wind, and never really catches on in those parts; there is, in fact, no reason why it should. The Cold Mountain community represents the future of the country, not its past like the plantations of Tara and Twelve Oaks. More relevant to Cold Mountain would have been a discussion of the frontier mystique, present in films as diverse as Jeremiah Johnson, Dances with Wolves, and innumerable other Westerns, or even in that stake-your-claim scene in Far and Away. At least, Cold Mountain's setting is not prettified like that of The Yearling (a children's film at any rate), but opportunities are missed all the way through.
Just as in several other films obsessed with its stars and awards, Cold Mountain's real gems are its supporting actors, who perfectly fit the parts and the historical setting, and its cinematography. Overall, however, the film left the same bad taste in my mouth as Gods & Generals did, but for completely different reasons."Gods & Generals" glorified the South; "Cold Mountain" glorifies itself -- and I still can't decide which cause is the worst to endorse.
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originally posted: 01/25/04 18:52:28