Mountainous Achievement

Cold Mountain sets the new standard for Civil War drama onscreen

Dec 24, 2003 at 4:00 am
Anthony Minghella's magnificent film version of the Civil War epic Cold Mountain has much more going for it than Hollywood grandeur. Beyond its striking set pieces and gruesome battle scenes populated with thousands of extras, in addition to its movie-star glamour -- Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are like beautiful pieces of china about to fall from a high shelf -- Minghella's film has the kind of moral force and intimate focus that great war movies demand. It's grand-scale moviemaking you can feel in your heart and in your gut -- at once stirringly romantic and ruthlessly counter-romantic, just like the ambitious Charles Frazier bestseller from which it was adapted. After all these decades, Gone With the Wind suddenly seems just that -- gone. Herewith, the new standard for Civil War drama onscreen.

Frazier's working model was nothing less than Homer's Odyssey, in which battle-weary Odysseus makes his way back from the killing field to his beloved Penelope. But the North Carolina novelist also called upon sources closer to home. The troubled hero of book and movie, a wounded Confederate soldier named W.P. Inman, is based on Frazier's own great-great uncle, who in 1865 walked home 300 miles from a military hospital in Virginia. As portrayed here by the magnetic Law, Inman becomes the very soul of an era, a disillusioned warrior tormented by his bloody memories and clinging to his dreams of a vanished world, rooted in the home and the love he left behind in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. "If I had goodness," he laments in 1864, "I lost it."

For Kidman, who plays Inman's faithful inamorata, the Charleston-born belle Ada Monroe, with just the right mixture of stunned bafflement (she has no practical skills) and pluck (she learns to survive), this is another chance to stretch her acting muscles, and she takes every advantage of it. Played out in dueling pre-war and end-of-war time frames, the love affair of Inman and Ada personifies the desire of a divided nation in critical ferment -- gravely damaged and unfulfilled, but brimming with passionate intensity. For the lovers, the few moments they spent together in 1861 are "a bag of tiny diamonds," precious and endangered.

Minghella has, of course, grappled with such issues before. The obsessive lovers in The English Patient were every bit as disdainful of war's false ideals as Frazier's pair, and in Minghella's underappreciated Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), a young widow's consuming sorrow conjures up the irksome ghost of her dead husband. In Cold Mountain, the director elegantly reproduces some of the most memorable trials Frazier gave his Inman on the long road home -- his encounter with a crazed preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who's impregnated a slave; a drunken supper with sex-starved women; his capture by the Home Guard, led by the brutal vigilante Teague (Ray Winstone); his rescue by a kind mountain woman who keeps goats and, perhaps most dramatic of all, his brief stay with a grief-stricken war widow (Natalie Portman) and her sick infant son, which is interrupted by a cruel visit from Yankee marauders. Taken together, these beautifully detailed incidents constitute an odyssey worthy of Homer's original, unburdened now by Frazier's sometimes turgid prose style.

Here's a nice detail: Most of this was filmed not in the American South but in rural Romania, where the forests remain dense, and the look of the land is still primal.

Minghella is also bold enough to begin his film with a pivotal event that was not depicted in the book -- the Civil War's infamous Battle of the Crater, fought July 30, 1864 at Petersburg, Virginia. A disaster for the Union that took 6,300 lives in all, the battle's reproduced here in all its gory horror -- a nightmare of mud, fire and blood in which the Northern infantrymen, having detonated a huge mine beneath the Confederate fortifications, are trapped in the vast pit the explosion has ripped in the earth and slaughtered wholesale by the enemy above. It's a scene that presages the appalling carnage of World War I, and it's also the traumatizing event that finally pushes Inman over the edge, stirring him to desert with a burnt-sienna tintype of his love still secreted in his pocket and his will to survive right out there on his tattered sleeve.

Meanwhile, in the home-front sections of the film, the French-speaking, ill-equipped Ada learns to make do with the crucial help of a salty farmer's daughter, Ruby Thewes (rambunctious Renée Zellweger), whose skills include rooster-killing and fence-mending -- essential amid the deprivations of war. The villainous Teague and his nasty minions harrass the women, too: We yearn for his demise.

It's an article of faith among hardcore Civil War re-enactors (and some book-club couch potatoes, too) that every bayonet thrust, every last jacket button, must look like the real thing, and Minghella's team of researchers, artists and designers take to the task with enthusiasm. Cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, Rain Man) gives us arrestingly grim views of war and ruin, and his shot of a frost-glazed corpse on the morning after an ambush seems to spring straight out of Stephen Crane. Production designer Dante Ferretti, who's done five films with Martin Scorsese, obsesses on every period detail, and Ann Roth's costumes are masterful, especially Kidman's wasp-waisted crinolines. As for the music, Gabriel Yared's hauntingly restrained original score is the perfect complement to the period-accurate folk songs selected and arranged by bluesman T-Bone Burnett, some of them performed onscreen as a kind of Greek chorus to the film's tragedies, large and small.

In the end, what Minghella has wrought is a nearly perfect drama of love and war (still the great subjects, after all), an epic that's fluent, frightening and beautiful all at once, that lifts the heart and dashes our dreams in about equal measure. Here's a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, as intelligent as it is harrowing.