Once you accept Southern accents coming from the mouths of such famously non-American actors as Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, you realize much of the beauty of Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” is in fact the casting of it.
Each actor brings his or her inherent, usually very famous qualities to the film, a Civil War love story. Kidman’s beautiful, sharp features and soft-spoken manner befit Ada Monroe, the Southern belle she plays, and Kidman’s native intelligence lends credence to Ada’s frustration over having been so impractically brought up that when her preacher father (Donald Sutherland) dies, she has no idea how to run the farm and fend for herself. Jude Law has a sensitive, soft face, the face of a poet, not the face of a man cut out for the muddy, bloody trenches that cinematographer John Seale (“The English Patient,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) photographs so vividly. Though Law’s character, Inman, is a man of few words, what he says matters, and the purity of his heart is self-evident. When war breaks out between the states, he fights out of duty, not because he enjoys violence. And when he escapes from an army hospital to make the long walk back to North Carolina and Ada, no one can blame him. A man like this didn’t belong in a war in the first place.
Kidman and Law bring all that to their performances, probably without even trying; it is simply who they are. It’s marvelous for their characters, but a little disadvantageous for their characters’ relationship: Try as I might, I could never see Ada and Inman, who love each other; I could only see Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, who do not have any particular chemistry together. Perhaps there is such a thing as being too famous.
But all of the actors, recognizable or not, seems perfect for the work assigned to him. Take Philip Seymour Hoffman, adding his characteristic eloquent worminess to the lapsed preacher he plays; or Renee Zellweger as Ruby, the no-nonsense, under-educated woman who teaches Ada how to survive on her own, simultaneously fiery and feminine; or even Natalie Portman as a beautiful, fragile young war widow whom Inman encounters on his way home.
Based on Charles Frazier’s novel and adapted by Minghella (who wrote the adaptations for his films “Talented Mr. Ripley” and “English Patient,” too), “Cold Mountain” keeps its stars separate most of the time — fitting, given what little their love is actually based on. They met and flirted briefly just before the war, culminating in one powerful kiss as Inman marched out of town with the rest of the Confederate army. Ada says, “I’ll be waiting for you,” figuring, like everyone else, that the war will be over in a matter of weeks.
The weeks turn into years, of course, and communication between Ada and Inman is virtually impossible. They are both in love, but each wonders whether the other even remembers. Their time together was so short, after all; they have so little to cling to. But in the desolation of the war, it’s all they have.
And so Inman sets out for North Carolina, hoping Ada is still waiting for him, ducking capture by the posse searching for (and executing) war deserters. Metaphorically, he descends into hell along the way, with one particularly harrowing sequence full of debauchery and vulgarity serving as perfect contrast to the chaste, reasonable courtship he had with Ada. She is the real thing; everything else is counterfeit.
It is all achingly romantic, the impracticality of love, and the lengths to which one will go to find it. But the film is also about reconciliation and redemption, the ability to change for the better. Ruby’s scoundrel father (Brendan Gleeson) emerges, hiding from the war and semi-sincerely looking to change his way. Though his relationship with Ruby serves as comic relief, it has serious undertones: Despite their massive problems as a family, they still need each other.
The film is epic in length but narrow in scope, showing us the lives of a handful of people and fixing its emotional sights on them exclusively. The tragedy of war is a factor, but it is not driven home as solidly as the tragedy of love.
B+ (2 hrs., 35 min.; )