Feb. 3, 2004 Director Anthony Minghella takes on the Civil War — in all its brutality, emotion, and isolated moments of sheer clarity — in "Cold Mountain," an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Charles Frazier.
Directing a movie like this is a challenge. In fact, Chicago Tribune critic Mark Caro says it may be the director's biggest challenge to date. Minghella has already brought two difficult books to the screen: the emotionally demanding, "The English Patient;" and Patricia Highsmith's sparse, "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
"Cold Mountain's" story is not unique. It is 1861. A young man known as Inman (Jude Law) meets Ada (Nicole Kidman), a sheltered minister's daughter, in Cold Mountain, a small town in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. After a very fleeting acquaintance he joins all the other young men and runs off to fight the war. Three harrowing years later, Inman returns, with what The New Yorker's David Denby describes as "his spirit in shreds."
However, Denby says "in our eyes he has gained in understanding and become a man." A similar change has occurred with Ada, who has been left to manage a 300-acre farm after her father's death.
Denby says Minghella handles the material bravely. "He is neither a gusher nor a mystic, or a decorator; he has the strength of a true romantic imagination, the conviction that realism needs a push to yield up its deepest terrors and glories."
That said, the story follows Inman through what Denby calls "an American Odyssey." His adventures are bloody and violent. At one point after a fierce battle, he escapes and strikes out on his own, only to be captured by a vicious group of Southern freeloaders called the Home Guard. At one point, Inman is chained with the other deserters, like slaves, and then shot. However, he survives and attempts to bring the bodies of the others down a muddy hill.
Barely alive, Inman is rescued and nursed back to health by a mountain woman (Eileen Atkins) so that he can continue on his seemingly endless journey home.
In the meantime, Inman and Ada somehow keep up a correspondence; both need something to cling to, a hope. Ada, by this point, has been joined by a young drifter, Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who Denby says, "stomps into the movie like a junior Mammy Yokum." Ruby then teaches Ada how to run the farm and resist marauders.
Caro is not as charitable as Denby in his estimation of the movie. He maintains Cold Mountain is "too pristine, unrealistic. In terms of pedigree and sheer, lush filmmaking, the movie has class written all over it. And that's part of the problem."
"Ruby's story grows stronger as it goes along," Caro says, but adds that "Zellweger is so durned plucky that Ruby verges on being a shtick figure."
Denby says of Kidman: "With her flashing eyes, and stalk-like body, Kidman is on top of her game Although she has been in movies for years, she seems utterly fresh." Law, he says, "has developed into a hardworking actor who is willing to take big chances."
Where Denby sees growth in the characters' development, Caro sees fault: "As Ada, however, Nicole Kidman never sheds her movie-star skin, even though she demonstrated what an effective character actress she can be in 'The Hours'. Ada, like the movie, is just too pristine: even after months of roughing it, her skin remains porcelain and ageless, her blond locks ready for a shampoo commercial."
However, Denby is puzzled by one aspect of the film, namely the absence of blacks and barely a mention of slavery. One could point out, he says, "that there weren't many slaves in those plantation-free mountains, but that isn't quite a sufficient answer."
Nonetheless, Denby says, it is a movie that insists "you respond to it fully. You either shut it out, or you go all the way into it and come out feeling both shaken or wildly happy."
"Cold Mountain" runs 2:35 and is rated R for violence and sexuality.
It opens Thursday at Market Square East.
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