The Gorgeous Landscapes and Drab Narrative of Copperhead


Once again revisiting the Civil War with Copperhead, director Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) shows a flair for mythologizing via beautiful panoramas of upstate New York landscapes but less so, unfortunately, through his film’s inert story and flat performances. Based on Harold Frederic’s novel, Maxwell’s tale concerns farmer Abner Beech (Billy Campbell), whose opposition to Lincoln’s “unconstitutional war” inspires rebellion from son Jeff (Casey Thomas Brown) and local abolitionist Jee Hagadorn (Angus Macfadyen)—whose daughter, Esther (Lucy Boynton), is fancied by Jeff. The result is an unsuccessful balancing act: presenting man of principle Abner (nether pro-South nor pro-slavery) as a virtuous victim of discrimination despite resisting a war viewers will consider just, while also depicting Jee as a nasty zealot despite the fact that he’s on the right side of the conflict’s bedrock civil rights issue. Alas, by setting aside questions of the war’s justness for a portrait of mob-mentality intolerance, the proceedings feel as if they’re missing the forest for the trees—albeit quite lovely trees, with cinematographer Kees Van Oostrum’s photography of the bucolic Northern countryside providing relief from the sluggish drama that defines this morality lesson about the unimpeachable virtue of loving thy neighbor.