Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 01, 2004 2:12 pm 
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Little comfort in romance: glossy adaptation falls flat

As usual with Minghella this is a glossy production with glamorous stars – Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger – and some great supporting actors – Donald Sutherland, Brendan Gleeson, Eileen Atkins, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, -- the list goes on and on: Ray Winstone (as the evil, Dickensian Teague) and Charlie Hunnam for once as an evil guy, Teague's Home Guard sidekick. The freshman Hunnam turns out to make a great evil guy, and Jude Law is every bit as handsome as the magazines always say he is. Nicole is a blooming dewy pink rose, even when laboring in the fields like a hired hand. Every hair is in place, even when they're out of place.

Renée Zellweger, as Ruby, for a while unquestionably breathes quite unexpected life into a story that constantly loses energy and momentum. The Reverend Monroe (Sutherland) dies in a rainstorm; as in the Charles Frasier novel, Ada is quickly fading when left alone by her father's unexpected demise. The young Inman, despite the energy of his love for Ada, seems perpetually about to die. There's not much excitement in foregone conclusions. Ruby however comes in to save the citified Ada and with her jumpy energy and matter of fact coping skills she keeps the farm going. It's a charming but somewhat ambiguous performance, at once selfless (for the recent star of Chicago and Down with Love to look so comically dumpy) and attention-grabbing. The audience is thankful for it. Inman's `Odyssey' –- as he wanders from the hospital AWOL back home to his love, Ada – is a constant faltering. The movie would die on the vine completely without jerky, manic characters like the tireless Ruby and the wicked Junior (Giovanni Ribisi) to liven it up.

The battle sequence is extended beyond anything in Charles Frazier's book (which I think may owe something to Cormac McCarthy but lacks McCarthy's poetic prose and his epic sense of doom; and itself is constantly faltering), but it's still short, that battle, and it's so beautiful, with its Delacroix panoramas of flying limbs and nude torsos and explosions and mud, that you wish it were longer. It's the high point of the film. But it has little essential to do with the whole story. It's just a lovely, inspired tableau.

This is, basically, a teaser love story: two people meet a few times briefly. They're separated by a war; they are reunited very briefly, and it's over. When they first meet, a certain gap of station and money holds them apart but the chemistry is evident. The movie telescopes the romance but pumps up the smooching. The Civil War comes, and Inman goes off, but long before the couple has their passionate kiss Minghella has made it very clear they're totally gone on each other. In the book, Ada never actually sends a letter to Inman. They're in love in Charles Frazier's version; it's just that in the movie, with its emphasis on spectacle rather than inner experience (despite voiceovers), the romance has to be heavily underlined. There's no time in all the spectacle, it seems, to show it developing.

There's an awful lot of killing, despite the battle being done with early on. The story emphasizes how dangerous the lives of people are away from the actual direct confrontations, with soldiers raping and pillaging. Even moms of suckling babes mow down enemy soldiers with shotguns. There's an implication that the South had to scare its people into loyalty: the Home Guard represents an evil element in the South. Teague and his boys in Cold Mountain, North Carolina, the place the deserter Inman is heading back to, are perpetually hunting down deserters and Federal sympathizers and terrorizing Ada. Teague wants her land, which he once owned, and her.

This is too eventful a movie, made from too flat, rambling, and badly written a book. The adventures of Inman are constantly cut in with Ruby and Ada's progress toward friendship and self-sufficiency and so forth, but when Ada and Inman finally meet again it's one night of lovemaking and then Inman is killed by Charlie Hunnam's evil young Home Guard after a battle with him and Teague which Teague loses. And so the tease ends. Except that there's the epilogue where we see Ada happy with her `family,' Ruby, Georgia, her husband now, their children, her father, Sally the widow neighbor. . .a sunny scene, everyone together at a table outside and the musicians playing.

The strongest emotion Cold Mountain evokes through its long length is horror at the brutality of war. It's like you're being cattle-prodded every five minutes: Look! Look! War bad! It's an anti-war story in some sense, but the romance powerfully dissipates the energy of anti-war sentiment. And Nicole, as so often lately, is too pretty and perfect. The inner lives of the two principals aren't evoked well enough for there to be much more than some romantic twinges in it, and some horror.

This may be Jude Law's best star turn yet in what has already been a distinguished and varied career, though one that has still lacked one great movie and one great role. Nicole is a splendid star, but too much so for the nitty gritty life Ruby is supposed to be taking her into. The two, Ada and Ruby, make an odd but charming combination.

What you're left with after Cold Mountain is over is no very strong emotional impression, just a sort of Classics Illustrated Comic Book kaleidoscope of vivid visual images expensively risen from their story boards. Previously Minghella made glossy stuff out of an arty novel, Ondatje's English Patient, and it was embraced by American audiences but seemed like a Masterpiece Theater mini-series all run at once more than a movie. Then he made glossy stuff out of a sort of camp classic, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and despite one or two terrific scenes it lost its edge through the wrong alterations. Now he has made glossy stuff out of a clumsily written Civil War epic, and the result falls flat. His movies are too full of themselves. Cold Mountain leaves you underwhelmed. The prettiness, the ugliness; the explosions; the kisses: it's all too much, and none of it adds up to anything in the end. The movie is fine as a spectacle and in its parts: if that were all movies were about, Minghella would be a great director. But it's not, and he isn't.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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