(2003)3.5Dana RowaderAnthony Minghella's Cold Mountain is at once a beautifully shot, contemplative film about the Civil War South, and a messy, uneven narrative that fails to fully engage the viewer. Chief among the film's problems is its unbalanced mix of romance, war drama, road movie, and ensemble film elements. Considering the fact that this film is, at its heart, a romance, it is unfortunate that the leads lack chemistry. Although part of this may be due to the fact that both actors are playing very internalized characters -- Kidman a shy and unsure belle, and Law a thoughtful, yet introverted, man of few words -- they just do not stir up the requisite amount of passion when onscreen together for their love story to be compelling. There is also little foundation for their relationship in the story line since they barely interact with each other before their separation. Attempts to convey Ada's (Kidman) inner thoughts through voice-over readings of her love letters fall into melodrama, and Inman's (Law) repeated gazing at Ada's daguerreotype falls short of conveying more than escapist sentiments amidst his harsh surroundings. In fact, his decision to desert the Confederate Army seems to be grounded more in his own desire to get away from the bloodshed and death than in acquiescence to her call for his return.
Thankfully, there is much more to both of their stories than their supposed love for each other. Though Ada and Inman maintain rather aloof personalities, even in their separate stories, they still have a multitude of other characters with which to interact. The film is bursting at the seams with colorful "country folk," disturbing opportunists, and sad souls -- many populated by recognizable character actors and minor stars. From the sinful Southern preacher played by the always-intriguing Philip Seymour Hoffman to the desperate, widowed young mother portrayed with ferocity by Natalie Portman, these characters are the lifeblood of the film. The larger supporting roles are taken by those in Ada's life, including a devastating turn by Kathy Baker as her neighbor and a moving turn by Donald Sutherland as Ada's wise father. Renée Zellweger's feisty performance as a down-home girl who helps Ada run her farm, becoming her closest friend in the process, may be considered by some as hamming it up or chewing the scenery; however, her character injects life into the film where it would otherwise have fallen horribly flat. The problem with all of these many performances is that they upstage the two leads. In this barrage of characters, even many cameo performers come across as full-blooded, three-dimensional personalities, while Ada and Inman seem more like blank slates.
Helping out the film immensely is its wonderful musical score by Gabriel Yared and its many traditional country and folk tunes. The work of Alison Krauss, Jack White, and many other artists really brings the film to life, giving the Southern characters and environment a sense of authenticity throughout. Yared's score imbues the romance with a subtle, understated warmth that it could not have accomplished on its own and works beautifully with the sweeping, gorgeous cinematography. One should be warned that the film is very gruesome and brutal in parts, truly depicting the savagery of war and the anarchy that overran the South as the Civil War was being lost. This brutality, characterized at first on the actual battlefield, but also in many of the characters' heartless actions, threatens to overwhelm the love story and any hope the film seeks to offer. The movie seems to want its romance to be the unifying element, but the love story ends up feeling more like an ineffectual backdrop most of the time, not strong enough to balance out the disheartening elements of the film. Cold Mountain is really a beautifully crafted movie; it's just a shame that many of its disparate elements could not come together to create a cohesive cinematic experience.