Pros: Stunningly beautiful, great supporting cast, awesome battle sequences, epic and yet intimate
Cons: Simplistic, deals poorly with race, slavery and feminism, historically inaccurate. Insufficiently true to the book.
Make no mistake, this is a remarkable movie - heartbreaking, deeply stirring and beautifully filmed. It is certainly a big contender for the Best Picture Academy Award. With a superstar cast giving wining performances, this movie is the one to beat. But if you read and loved Charles Frazier's National Book Award winning book, be prepared to be disappointed. The movie just doesn't come close to doing justice to the book. I would have enjoyed this movie more had I not read the book. But that would be a loss - it's a great book and still worth reading even if you see the movie. Cold Mountain (the book) is long and lyrical and any attempt to bring it to film must be regarded as downright heroic. No movie of less than eight hours could do this book justice. The version as released has been cut down to two and a half hours. In so doing, there are some serious losses. It changes very critical elements of the book and completely blows the feminist and racial harmony angles of the book as well as the themes of healing and redemption. It has become a straight-up love story devoid of the complexities that Frazier created. Those losses make me a bit conflicted in recommending this movie. Perhaps it is a testimony to Charles Frazier's work that even a movie that removes or distorts much of his book is still amazing.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Cold Mountain is set during the end of the Civil War (oops, War of Northern Aggression) and tells the love story of W.P. Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), who meet and quickly fall in love before he goes off to war. Inman, a Confederate solder deserts after suffering life-threatening injuries during the battle of Petersburg, and walks across the state of North Carolina to his home (and his love) in the mountains, Cold Mountain. He makes his way through a desperate, war-torn Confederacy and meets the people impacted by this terrible war. He does this while trying to avoid the Home Guard, a militia whose task it is to round up deserters, although they more often tortured and killed anyone they wished, and Federal troops. At the same time, Charleston-bred, southern belle Ada finds herself alone and ill-prepared in the mountains on her farm after her father dies and all the men-folk head off to war. To her rescue comes the hardscrabble Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger) who insists on working with Ada, not as a servant, but as an equal to save the farm. The story is told first by going back and forth in time, from the present during the war, back to Ada and her father's arrival in Cold Mountain, and later by switching between Inman and Ada in the present. It works very well in the book but I thought it would be clumsy and confusing in a movie. Director Anthony Minghella makes it work though, much as he did in The English Patient.
Although set in the last days of the Civil War, the book is a Homeric odyssey echoing the way in which Odysseus navigates his way through adventures and trials trying to find his way home to his loving wife Penelope. The movie does not have that classical feel, and comes off more Gone With The Wind than The Odyssey. But this movie is so much more than GWTW. (Although there is a scene where Ada is scraping in the snowy field for food and I half expected her to rise up and yell, "As God as my witness, I'll never go hungry again!") It is deeply moving and, unlike the classical epic, is profoundly anti-war. Beware, despite this being a love story, it is extremely violent. I'm talking the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan-violent. The violence is not gratuitous however, and is a critical part of this war/love story. And the violence is not all in the battle sequences, part of the point the movie makes about the real impact of war. The movie succeeds in being both epic and yet intimate. The book was wonderfully historically accurate, the movie is less so. But the battle sequences are awe-inspiring. The explosion that starts the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg will knock your socks off (pun intended).
There are so many good performances in this film that it is hard to know where to begin. I've always thought of Jude Law as just a pretty face but he mounts a powerful performance as the reluctant soldier. Even in the book, Inman is kind of enigmatic and Law allows him to remain a sympathetic cipher in the movie. Nicole Kidman is spot on as Ada and makes the transition from Southern belle genuine and believable (although her ability to still be stunningly gorgeous at all times is a bit off-putting). I was worried about how an Australian actor would handle a Southern accent, but she does remarkably well. Renee Zellweger's performance is great, if a trifle buffoonish at times, but she steals the show as the down-to-earth Ruby.
While Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger take up the most screen time, it is the supporting characters and actors that really make this film special. Many of these performances were truly outstanding even if they last only a few minutes. Kathy Baker turns in a brilliantly subtle performance as Ada's neighbor, Sally Swanger. Philip Seymour Hoffman's comical preacher is marvelously sleazy, as Giovani Ribisi's character is dangerously so. Melora Walters does a bit too well in a disturbingly sexual Circe role, while Natalie Portman plays the bereaved war widow. Ethan Suplee succeeds in playing the most endearing simple-minded musician. Ray Winstone plays the most over-the-top bad guy as Teague, the murderous head of the Home Guard. He practically twirls his moustache and ties the heroine to the railroad tracks. It is the role I would have expected Donald Sutherland to play, but here he plays Ada's gentle minister father. THE standout supporting performance comes from Eileen Atkins in a splendid and lyrical turn as the goatwoman, an enchanting character done justice by a talented actor.
I expect several Academy Award nominations to come Cold Mountain - Best Picture, Best Actress for Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger, several best actor/actress in supporting roles for Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Costumer designer Ann Roth should win an Oscar for this beautifully costumed work.
This part of the review concentrates on the differences between the book and the movie, as well as comparisons with GWTW and therefore contains SPOILERS.
In making the transition to film, there are many changes which one who has read the book will find disturbing. Storylines from the book are merged There are additions to the book as well, changing the nature of the relationship between Ada and Teague. In the book they had none, in the movie, he covets both her and her farm. There are notable issues that come about from shortening the movie for mass distribution. In several scenes things occur or characters are focused upon without explanation. For example, during the battle sequence, Inman gets shot when he goes back to save Swimmer. But in the movie, Swimmer and his importance are never identified and Inman's behavior seems ludicrous, not heroic.
The most serious problems in the book's translation to film have nothing to do with length and relate to what I think may be Italian-born, London-reared director Anthony Minghella's lack of understanding of issues of race and feminism in the US. At least, that's what I'm hoping. I'd hate to believe that he knowingly and willfully removed all characters of colour from the movie. The book had several vivid and engaging characters of colour - Swimmer, Big Tildy, Lucinda and yellowman, one of a group of slaves who hide and feed Inman and provide him with a beautifully drawn map that helps him along his journey in a way that echoes the Underground Railroad. None of these characters make it into the film. In a particularly egregious racial move, Ruby has become a blue-eyed blond in the casting of Renee Zellweger. In the book, Ruby is of mixed race. In fact, in an earlier interview, Renee Zellweger admitted her surprise at being approached for the part because she believed that Ruby was of a different racial/ethnic background. Altering Ruby's racial background does a serious disservice to the book as well as to the many black and Native American actors for whom this could have been a breakthrough role. As a black woman w/Cherokee blood myself, these deletions and alterations were heartbreaking disappointments and make me angry. In another comparison with GWTW, Cold Mountain does a disservice to people of colour. Cold Mountain reduces all actors of colour to mere extras, despite their strong presence in the book. This is not an issue of mere political correctness but of artistic and historic integrity a point which Minghella claims to care deeply about and did much research. It is then especially appalling that The Battle of the Crater scene (a minor point in the book) is sadly lacking in black soldiers despite this being the first major deployment of the US Colored Troops. USCT suffered the highest rate of casualties of any division as they were killed not only by Confederate but by Union troops who did not want to serve or be captured with black soldiers. By deleting all characters of color, Minghella also deletes a critical theme in the book - the theme of healing.
The issue of slavery is an important part of the book but virtually disappears in the movie, again gone with the theme of healing. Although Inman comes from a part of North Carolina where plantation slavery was rare, he sees more of slavery during the war and comes to realize that he may be fighting a war to maintain rich white men?s right to own slaves. Without that part in the movie, his desertion and journey seems more just a wish to return to Ada than a growing moral awareness.
Similarly, the movie totally discards the feminist thrust of the book. In the book, Ada does not remain in Cold Mountain because she is waiting for Inman to return (largely because they are not sure of the other's feelings), but because she doesn't want to return to Charleston to be married off to some rich man in order to make her way in the world. By the time she hooks up with Inman near the end, she has become a competent and self-sufficient woman. She chooses to be with him, not because she needs him, but because she wants him. And Inman sees and values this change in her. This essential element of the book (which is also an important element of the Odyssey) is removed from the movie. I suppose the director felt that movie viewers would not understand the more complex and interesting love story as portrayed in the book. But the movie is more a traditional love story and is a bit sappy.
Is Cold Mountain a great movie? Absolutely. But it doesn't do justice to a book that was so much more complex, interesting and historically accurate. Perhaps it should have been a mini-series (a la HBO's Angels In America?) I enjoyed this movie but I also mourn for what it might have been as well as for the angry realization that eliminating the issues of feminism, slavery and race, and all characters of colour seem to be what is necessary to make a mainstream blockbuster movie in the US.