Made to be nominated, Cold Mountain has asignal advantage over its four likely Oscar rivals (Master and Commander, The Last Samurai, The Return of the King, and designated long shot Lost in Translation), as well as its doomed stablemate, The Human Stain: It’s a big fat war movie and a tender love story.
Indeed, Cold Mountain is something of an uneasy struggle between the two modes. Adapted by Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier’s bestseller, the movie opens in July 1864, during the long and bloody siege of Petersburg (just before the Union’s famously bungled “crater” attack), with Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law) studying a worn tintype of his adored Ada (Nicole Kidman), the minister’s daughter whom he fervently kissed before marching off to war: Call him the American patient.
The fratricidal conflict of the Civil War lends itself to tales of romantic bonding, and the movie is predicated on making Inman and Ada’s parallel lives converge. From the bloody battleground of hell, the action flashes back three years to Inman and Ada’s meeting in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. Scenes thereafter alternate between their shy prewar courtship and their separate, escalating wartime deprivation. Wounded at Petersburg, Inman deserts the Confederate army—an offense punishable by summary execution—and begins walking back to Cold Mountain. Meanwhile, Ada’s daddy (Donald Sutherland) dies, leaving her helpless and alone in their little homestead. Gallantly, she lets her (never seen) slaves go free: “Now she’s got nothing—just waiting on a ghost,” a neighbor observes.
Fortunately, Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), backwoods spawn of an itinerant, no-account fiddler, arrives to show the fluttering Ada how to run her farm. Foil to the genteel heroine, the Thewes gal is a feisty motormouth and fierce little thing, as well as a cracker-barrel philosophe in the Davy Crockett tradition. Cold Mountain‘s designated scene-stealer, Zellweger makes the most of her outsize bonnets and humorous dialogue while delivering her unique brand of physical performance: character as countenance contortion. Reinventing the Method notion of “sense memory” (or perhaps the ancient Greek tradition of the dramatic mask), Zellweger scrunches her mouth and squints her eyes. Her basic acting strategy is to pull a face and hold it for the entire movie.
Frazier’s novel was specifically regional. Minghella’s movie is necessarily less so, despite the considered panoply of mountain music and local dialects. Kidman’s drawl is no more disorienting than the lush Carpathian locations. Awareness that Cold Mountain was shot in darkest Romania creates a quite different experience—the setting is oddly universalizing, as Ada’s survival story is juxtaposed with the epic tale of the soldier’s return. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Cold Mountain is pleased to reference The Odyssey—most obviously in the episode involving a den full of hillbilly sirens and another where Inman finds shelter with Natalie Portman’s crypto Circe. (She turns men into swine, but it’s not her fault.)
Praising the novel in The New York Review of Books, Alfred Kazin thought that Inman (“a damn good killer . . . curt, grave, and resourceful”) would make a perfect role for the presumably young Clint Eastwood. Jude Law is less stoic killer than mulishly sensitive victim. His actorly determination matches Kidman’s—there’s more chemistry in their tintypes than their interactions—although the script decrees that these cool operators make a sweet pair of sweeties. Inman, for example, has the patience to coax a dove from a church, the nobility to risk his life saving an enslaved woman from her pusillanimous master, and the sensitivity to put in a word for the land’s original Cherokee inhabitants. Ada, of course, is a model of self-actualization.
Gazing backward and upside down into a wishing well, Ada has a vision of Inman returning home. It’s an appropriately muzzy metaphor. The journey is the thing, and schematic as it is, Cold Mountain turns inert every time Inman stops moving. Far more convincing than the movie’s love story is the evocation of a social landscape after battle—the complete breakdown of order, the civilians terrorized by their own Home Guard. Indeed, the failure of romance only reinforces Cold Mountain‘s distinction as a studio movie based on suffering.