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Cold Mountain   B+

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Anthony Minghella
Writer: Anthony Minghella (based on the novel by Charles Frazier)
Cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi, Eileen Atkins.

Review by Rob Vaux

Beware of too much praise too early. Especially around Christmastime and especially attached to a Miramax film. The studio produces tons of daring and original pictures, but most of them come and go long before Oscar season. This time of year, they have a nasty habit of feeding us horseshit and calling it pumpkin pie. The tactic works far too often -- witness the trophy case full of undeserving hardware -- making it difficult to acknowledge the merits of a film like Cold Mountain. Unlike many previous entries in the Miramax Oscar derby, it's actually quite good... even as the hype surrounding it rises far louder than it merits.

Director Anthony Minghella is technically brilliant, but often lacks the energy to infuse his projects with lasting meaning. This time out, things are a bit different. He doesn't allow his story to be held hostage by the landscapes surrounding it, and he maintains a sense of activity sorely lacking in his other productions. Based on the novel by Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain portrays an antebellum variant of The Odyssey, as a good-hearted Confederate soldier fights to find his way home to the woman he loves. Most of the action takes place in the winter of 1864, with the Southern cause teetering and the seeds of war bearing bitter fruit. The title town in North Carolina sent a crop of soldiers off to fight -- among them Inman (Jude Law), a quiet commoner who pines for the minister's daughter back home -- and now suffers oppression and injustice amid the falling snow. Inman's ladylove is Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), whose father dies early in the war, leaving her helpless and destitute. After being injured during the siege of Petersburg (a terrific opening sequence), the young soldier receives a letter from her begging to return home. And when it's Nicole Kidman doing the begging, you can bet he'll pay attention. He promptly goes AWOL from a Confederate hospital and begins an epic journey full of trials both physical and spiritual to get back to her.

As usual, Minghella brings a breathtaking visual eye to the story, helped out by DP John Seale and brilliant production designer Dante Ferretti. Together, they make great strides in delivering a version of the CSA at once achingly realistic and yet new to the screen. Like Odysseus', Inman's quest is episodic, giving Cold Mountain numerous opportunities to explore different aspects of life in the Civil War. It also gives some meaty supporting roles to a number of great actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as a duplicitous preacher and Eileen Atkins as a reclusive wise woman. Law provides a strong audience surrogate (as well as a common thread to bind it all together), and Minghella keeps each incident interesting without losing track of where it's all going.

He also gives due attention to the other half of the story, as Ada's dilemma blossoms into a fascinating theme in its own right. Raised as a proper Southern belle in the Scarlet O'Hara mold, she finds herself unable to cope with the harsh new life that wartime has imposed. Her struggles to make ends meet and fend off the tyrannical local law (led by Ray Winstone, another standout), are no less compelling than Inman's. Minghella combines the two threads very delicately, bringing a sense of romance to the couple despite the vast distances that separate them. And though Kidman is generally impressive, she's eclipsed -- as is everyone else -- by a breathtaking turn from Renée Zellweger. As Ada's surrogate savior Ruby, a tough-talking drifter with a strong instinct for survival, Zellweger flashes brass and acid in irresistible amounts, and before we know it, she's walked off with the whole film in her teeth.

Yes, it's all well done... yet at the same time, it's far from perfect. Cold Mountain's principle flaw lies in its penchant for melodrama. Villains twirl their mustaches, heroines are brave and enduring, and as the second hour ticks past, the plot bends over backwards to keep pace with the implausibilities. The twists start to feel predictable as well, and though Minghella always maintains our attention, we can sometimes see the curve in the road ahead. There are moments, too, when a little Hollywood glamour bursts the historical bubble. Kidman, for example, spends the last 30 minutes looking straight off the make-up chair -- too inhumanly gorgeous for her surroundings -- and we lose her character in favor of the cover of Elle.

Normally, none of that would matter -- it certainly doesn't detract from the film's assets -- but when Oscar enters the mix, the bar is raised too high to ignore them. In the end, Cold Mountain is the sort of film more admired than loved, an impressive effort that's slowly being diminished by overpraise. Frankly, there are better films out right now, and it doesn't do anyone any favors to place this otherwise commendable piece in their company. Minghella is already walking around with Joel Coen's Oscar; he doesn't need Peter Jackson's too. His achievement here is too good to be mistaken for great; let Cold Mountain be what it is, just this once, and save the trophies for something more deserving.

Review published 12.25.2003.

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