(Originally posted on 1/21/04)
Anthony Minghella’s dewy-eyed Civil War romance Cold Mountain is cast as a Homeric travelogue of the picturesque, war-torn South in which slavery appears only as a decorative footnote and noted thespians randomly cameo in a bid for supporting actor Oscars. After a brief courtship of furtive conversations and lustful glances (and one whopper of a goodbye kiss!), Jude Law’s gentlemanly carpenter Inman is sent from the remote village of Cold Mountain to fight the dastardly Yankees attempting to destroy the noble Southern way of life, leaving Southern belle Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) -- the refined daughter of a popular minister (Donald Sutherland) -- to patiently wait for her beau’s return. After suffering injuries in a Northern sneak attack, Inman abandons the cause and embarks on an odyssey back to Cold Mountain, encountering various backwater characters hell-bent on self-preservation along the way. At the same time, Kidman’s Ada struggles to adapt to country life with the help of spastic tomboy Ruby Thewes (a shamelessly shrill and hammy Renee Zellwegger), whose scrunched face and dirty hair mask a tender heart scarred by her father’s paternal deficiencies. Blacks, meanwhile, are relegated to either cotton-picking window dressing or mute witnesses to Inman’s struggles, giving the film an air of historical inauthenticity that reeks of the filmmakers’ reluctance to confront the larger social and moral issues swirling around these fated lovers’ plight. Minghella bathes the opening battle scene in an orange-brown tint that gives the action a faded photographic rusticity, but the director’s epic aspirations lead to silly missteps such as depicting a soldier having his clothes literally blown off his body during the initial salvo. Law and Kidman bring a tortured resolve to their roles (even if I can’t shake the feeling that Law’s delicate facial features mark him as distinctly European), and Inman’s one-night stay with a distraught mother (Natalie Portman) stranded alone in the wilderness with her feverish infant forcefully dramatizes the monumental toll the war took on both the men who fought and the wives, girlfriends, and mothers left behind. Despite its handsome construction, the film left me mildly impressed with its workmanship but largely unmoved by its central storyline. Cold Mountain is missing that indefinable quality (is it chemistry? Directorial subtlety?) possessed by the finest romances, and consequently never ignites with full-bodied passion or misery. The film is, I sense, something to mildly admire rather than embrace.