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Laramie Movie Scope:
Cold Mountain

A big, sweeping romantic tragedy

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 1, 2004 -- This romantic costume drama set during the civil war has both an epic scale and focused, personal stories. Nicole Kidman and Jude Law star as Ada Monroe and Inman, two lovers parted by the war. Although they spend little time on the screen together, their love is the centerpiece to the story, which gives a very human face to the enormous tragedy, brutality and folly of war.

Director Anthony Minghella does a better job this time keeping his narrative flow from fragmenting than he did with his earlier award-winning film, “The English Patient.” Inman goes through the hell of war and Ada doesn't fare much better, starving on her small farm in Cold Mountain, North Carolina after her father (played by Donald Sutherland) dies. Ada writes a letter to Inman, asking him to return home. He deserts the army and starts the long journey home, dodging patrols from both sides. A deserter, he could be shot if captured. Ada is befriended by Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger of “Down With Love”), a no-nonsense woman who knows how to run a farm. She saves Ada from starving, but makes her work for her food. Ada and Ruby are befriended by the people who run the general store, but the whole town is threatened by the local militia, called the Home Guard, who have gradually become a band of thugs as the war goes on, terrorizing the area they patrol.

There is one big battle scene, a recreation of the Battle of Petersburg, in which Union troops laying siege to the city use explosives to blow up the city's defenses, then are later trapped in the hole made by their own blast. Such spectacle is rare in this film, however, as it mostly boils down to two stories, the long journey home for Inman and the struggle for survival by Ada and Ruby. Inman has many adventures on his way home, including encounters with colorful, and sometimes dangerous strangers. Some of those strangers include a highly unusual farmer named Junior (played by Giovanni Ribisi of “Lost in Translation”), a young widow named Sarah (Natalie Portman of “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace”), who has a sick child, the “Goat Woman” (Eileen Atkins) who cares for Inman after he is injured, and Veasey, a disgraced preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman of “Owning Mahowny”).

Ada and Ruby have their own adventures as Ada nearly starves before Ruby comes along. Then the two are visited by Ruby's ne're-do-well father, Stobrod Thewes (Brendan Gleeson of “Gangs of New York”), and his musician sidekicks, Ethan Suplee ("Remember the Titans") and Georgia (Jack White of the rock group White Stripes). Since the musicians are considered deserters, Ada and Ruby's contact with them puts them in danger from the local Home Guard gang, led by Teague (Ray Winstone of “Sexy Beast”), who has the hots for Ada. The Home Guard murders a local family in a very brutal fashion. Ada and Ruby take in the lone survivor of the massacre and fear they are next on Teague's list.

As one would expect, “Cold Mountain” is very politically correct regarding the politics of the Civil War. Although most of the characters are southern, most of them seem to oppose slavery. Indeed, there were few, if any, slaves to be seen in the film. Since slavery (or at least state's rights to continue slavery) was the key dispute in the war, one wonders what the southerners were fighting for. That was, after all, the key dispute in “Bleeding Kansas” and other border disputes. The few Union soldiers seen in the film are pretty nasty fellows. There is one scene where Union soldiers hold a woman's baby hostage so they can steal food from her. They also rape the woman. The only people nastier than this bunch of Union soldiers are Teague's renegades. This is obviously not a film that delves deeply or seriously into the politics of the Civil War. The writer and director wants us to identify with the characters in the film, so the politics sanitized and put on the back burner. Personal stories take priority over the big picture, much as Minghella did in “The English Patient” where the politics of World War II were largely irrelevant.

In “Cold Mountain,” the heart of the story is in the romance. You either buy into that story, or you don't. I bought into it and I thought the movie was great. Some critics could not bring themselves to buy into it, and ended up not liking the movie as much as I did. Another complaint about the movie is Renée Zellweger's performance. Some critics feel it represents over-acting. I thought her performance was a bright spot in the film. She was certainly the most lively, comic character in the film, a needed contrast to all the tragedy. I went into this movie expecting not to like it very much, but I was pleasantly surprised. Big plusses for the movie are the powerful story, great production and set designs, costume designs, and the sparkling cinematography by John Seale of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.” The acting is also strong. I was not a big fan of “The English Patient.” I thought it was an overblown soap opera, and did not think it deserved an Academy Award. I don't think “Cold Mountain” does, either, but at least it isn't overly melodramatic. It rates an A and is one of the best films of the year.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)