Anthony Minghella was a director adept at the risky blockbusters of the time. The English Patient was his magnum opus, an old-school epic adaptation of a very difficult novel which won multiple Oscars and was commercially successful too. This movie, Cold Mountain, was less critically and commercially heralded as compared to that work, but it still is a magnificent adaptation of another typically difficult source, the acclaimed novel by Charles Frazier. In fact, in some ways I would claim this is even better as here he has stuck to the mood and scope of the book, unlike in his picturisation of The English Patient, where, while a splendid work, it was tonally different from the book by Ondaatje. I have another reason for having fond memories of the book, one which was among the first ones I bought with my own money from the lovely little bookshop on the Infosys campus in Mysore, India. Frazier’s writing style struck me, in its no-nonsense, less punctuated style, similar to Cormac McCarthy and while I can’t claim to love the novel, though I admired it, it translates ravishingly onto the big screen.
It is the dying days of the Civil War and the young men of the beautiful town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, are mostly away fighting the Union. With heavy losses and the impending end of the battle looming, Inman (Jude Law) decides to trek his way across the country back to his hometown and the arms of the beautiful Ada (Nicole Kidman). Their connection seems tenuous, for it is based only on a few words spoken and one passionate kiss, and maybe scoffed at by the more cynical, but the romantic knows the heart knows no reason at times. Ada, the recently arrived Reverend’s daughter takes to Inman’s quiet resolve and yearning. But once war strikes, it’s not just the soldiers, but the people they left behind too who suffer. After Ada’s father passes away, her farm falls into disrepair and despite the kindness of neighbours, she is on thin pickings. But the unexpected arrival of the refreshingly feisty Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger) helps her pull the threads of her life together as they both set about setting right the disrepair at the farm, while also providing much needed kinship for each other. But the war has thrown up more enemies closer to home. With defeat and surrender at hand, soldiers deserting the lost cause are liable to be captured or killed by the Home Guards and the same goes for families sheltering such deserters. In Cold Mountain, the movie gets its menacing villains in Ray Winstone and a young, glowering Charlie Hunnam as the Home Guards wrecking families and killing the young (and old) men who come back to the town as deserters. Ruby adds some much-needed light-heartedness to the movie, but she has her demons too, including an estranged father (Brendan Gleeson) who shows up, a changed and repentant man, with a friendly posse of companions who also come under fire from the Home Guard.
Inman too has his share of brutal encounters on the long walk back home, including coming under attack from home guards rounding up deserters, as well as a bunch of Union soldiers who come upon the house of a Confederate widow (Natalie Portman) and her baby, where Inman had taken temporary refuge. He also comes across a wayward Reverend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the run from his townspeople and a wild and wacky family of Giovanni Ribisi and his multitude of women. Some friendly, some not so very friendly, they all provide a telling commentary on the brutalities and ruthlessness of war on its populace and how sometimes even decent men (and women) can end up becoming monsters. And if, at times, these supporting arcs provide more of a compelling tale to tell than the central romance, that is hardly a drawback. Both Inman and Ada are stilted personalities not used to expressing their desires much and their intense love being in the background of the central journey of the film made sense to me. Whether there is a happy ending in store is something which is up in the air till the end though, to the film’s credit.
The lead performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are imbued with feeling and warmth, but it’s the supporting roles which add some remarkable flourish to proceedings here. Renée Zellweger won an Oscar for her performance here and she is a refreshingly candid and sprightly presence here, winning over my initial doubt on her suitability for the role. There are small but powerful parts for an array of excellent actors, including Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brendan Gleeson, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, among others. It goes without saying that the cinematography and locations are magnificent and a pleasure to watch despite the grim happenings for a lot of the runtime. I wish I had watched this on the big screen when it came out, but this movie is one I somehow missed out on over the years. I’m happy to have finally caught it though and absolutely recommend it to anyone yet to watch it.