COLD MOUNTAIN - DVD review

While the film is handsome to look at and has its fair share of realism, it also gets plenty sappy along the way.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio
 
Eddie
Feng

Opening Rounds from John J. Puccio:
As I've said before in these pages, soap is soap. Which isn't necessarily bad. I mean, millions of people watch soap operas every afternoon. Besides, "Gone With the Wind" was a soap opera of grand dimensions and a classic movie. Vivien Leigh played a strong-willed and sometimes annoying young woman. Butterfly McQueen played a decidedly annoying but endearing young woman. And Clark Gable was magnificent. The movie's diverse action, persuasive acting, deft direction, elaborate sets, and beautiful cinematography helped its four hours fly by in no time.

The 2003 Civil War drama "Cold Mountain" aspires to be another "Gone With the Wind," complete with many of the earlier movie's characters and exploits. Nicole Kidman plays a strong-willed but annoyingly bland young woman. Renee Zellweger borrows from the Butterfly McQueen school of performing arts, playing a character so colorful the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in its inscrutable wisdom awarded her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. And Jude Law is nondescript. The movie's two-and-a-half hours can seem like forever.

If this sounds harsh, understand there is still much to like in "Cold Mountain," if only it weren't so long and didn't serve up so much that comes across so ordinary. Actually, the movie is interesting to look at much of the time, very authentic in period detail, and whether it's because Kidman and Law underact or because their characters are just plain dull, Zellweger upstages everyone around her. No, the film's appearance and acting are fine; it's the screenplay by writer-director Anthony Minghella ("Truly, Madly, Deeply," "The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), based on the popular novel by Charles Frazier, that's to fault, laden as it is with the wholly expected, the commonplace, and the derivative.

I'm afraid if it weren't for "GWTW" and "Ken Burns' Civil War" (not to mention the "Odyssey"), there probably wouldn't be a "Cold Mountain"; it's that dependent upon the older sources. The settings; the young Southern men whooping it up as they go off to what they think is going to be a glorious war; the poor, elegant lady left behind to tend the farm; the bad times; the killing of the last chicken; the evil overseer; the long and perilous journey home; the hero's eventual return; the music; yes, the music; and, of course, the love story. Indeed, this is basically a romance in the most romantic sense of the word, and if it weren't for the violence, the brutality, the nudity, and the several frank sexual scenes that earn the film an R rating, it might have been termed a romantic "family" picture. As it is, the film may be too disagreeably harsh for viewers looking primarily for a romance and too romantic for viewers looking primarily for action or adventure. The mixture of romance and adventure in "Cold Mountain" is rather too awkward, mawkish, and obvious to be entirely credible, but we have come to expect that from a typical soap.

Anyway, the story concerns a young woman, Ada Monroe (Kidman), who in 1861 moved to the little North Carolina valley town of Cold Mountain with her father, a minister (Donald Sutherland). He had come for his health, having to leave the refined elegance of Charleston for the more rustic pleasures of Cold Mountain. They are not there long before Ada meets an itinerant laborer, W.P. Inman (Law), and they instantly fall in love. But they barely have time for a single kiss before he is off to fight the dreaded Yankees.

Ada narrates the action, as the time shifts constantly in the movie's first half between the past (1861) and the present (1864). Things get hard for Ada with the town's men gone. She lets her slaves go, and there is no one to tend her lands. Her father dies. There is no food or money to be had. By the time three years pass, she writes to Inman asking him to drop everything, like the War, and please come back. Meanwhile, Inman has seen men literally blasted out their clothes (in a scene reminiscent of one described by Erich Maria Remarque in "All Quiet on the Western Front"). He's seen enough death and destruction for a lifetime, and he's ready to go home. Deserters are being shot on sight, but he decides to chance it. Just why he would give up the noble cause he was so eager to support and risk death for desertion can only be attributed to his devotion to Ada. Whatever she's got, he obviously wants it.

The bulk of the movie concerns Inman's desperate and determined attempts to return to Ada and Ada's resolve to take care of herself and remain faithful to Inman. Just what either of them see in one another beyond their physical attractiveness is hard to fathom, she a cultured and educated lady, he a rough, slow-talking workman. I guess if it's love at first sight, you don't question fate. Moreover, we see Inman charm a dove, so perhaps his just being in the right place at the right time charms Ada, too.

Prissy, er, Ruby (Zellweger) shows up on Ada's farm practically out of nowhere to lend a hand with the matter of living. Apparently, Ada's neighbors arranged the meeting, thinking Ada needed the help. Ruby is a country girl, barely having gone through the third grade, tough, worldly wise, hard speaking, and as practical as Ada is idealistic. It is only Ruby, as exaggerated a character as she is, that brings any life to the proceedings.

Into both Ada's and Inman's lives come a series of trials, tribulations, disasters, adventures, calamities, and temptations as Ada tries to keep the home fires burning and Inman tries simply to get home. The sequences come and go without much cohesion, merely a string of exciting and/or melodramatic moments, and the love story is a bit like "Sleepless in Seattle" in that the two lovebirds hardly see each other at all until the very end of the film.

Among the many supporting actors in the story, Brendon Gleeson plays Ruby's father, a likeable layabout who deserted her long before and comes around wanting help when he, too, deserts the Southern cause. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Reverend Veasey, a defrocked clergyman whom Inman picks up along the way. Natalie Portman plays a lonely, tempting young widow with a baby that Inman meets along his odyssey home. And Ray Winstone plays the villain of the piece, Teague, a man too old to go to war, who remains in Cold Mountain as the leader of the Home Guard. It's his duty to harass the locals, keep an evil eye on Ada, and shoot deserters on sight. Like all dastardly villains, he has no heart.

If, in fact, any of this sounds vaguely like Homer's "Odyssey," it is, says the film's creators, because that's what it's supposed to remind you of. Inman's attempts to return home to Ada, with constant trouble along the way, are intended to conjure up visions of Odysseus's frustrated attempts to return home to Penelope. The question one must ask is, So what?

The music of the movie will remind many listeners of the music in "Ken Burns' Civil War," and one can understand how and why both films mined the same folk material. Mostly the music is quiet, mournful, and melancholy, although during the initial battle sequence it is rather overdone with its choral accompaniment. The scenes of war and devastation are naturalistic to the extreme, and some shots may make viewers turn away. As compensation, the cinematography is sometimes ravishing as we get widescreen panoramas of mountains, forests, rivers, and valleys. But is any of this enough to compensate for the movie's leaden pace and overreliance on clichés and stereotypes? Not really.

A measure of the film's lack of effectiveness is the fact that after the Wife-O-Meter and I spent what seemed like an entire afternoon watching "Cold Mountain," we were both surprised to note that it was barely half finished. We thought the film was so slow moving that poor old Inman would never get home. When he did, I'm not sure it was worth our bother. While the film is handsome to look at and has its fair share of realism, it also gets plenty sappy along the way. A 6/10 at best.

Video:
The picture quality is very good but not exactly ideal. The anamorphic screen size admirably mirrors its 2.35:1 theatrical exhibition ratio, rendered here as approximately 2.11:1 across a standard television. There is a slight grain noticeable, especially in nighttime scenes, but this is not unusual to the best film stock. Overall, the image is fairly smooth despite the small degree of grain. Daylight shots are bright and well delineated; colors are natural, if a tad dark; and haloes and moiré effects are noticeable at times but only a problem if you're looking for them.

Audio:
The sound is available via either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. In DD 5.1 the front-channel stereo spread is quite wide, and the rear or side channels are well utilized in carefully assigned surround, with good directionality. The noise of war is all-enveloping, as it should be, but the more subtle impressions of massed voices, choirs, thunder, and rain are also effective. Add to the mix a strong, deep bass, wide dynamics, and a powerful transient impact, and you get an impressive workout for your audio system.

Extras:
The special features contain just about what you would expect from a two-disc set. Disc one includes the widescreen presentation of the film, with its Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 soundtracks; an audio commentary with director Anthony Minghella and film editor Walter Murch; twenty-eight scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two is given over to the bulk of the extras, including several documentaries and specials on the film. The main item is a seventy-four minute documentary, "Climbing Cold Mountain," that goes behind the scenes with the production, the sets (filmed in Romania), the battles, the casting, etc. After that is a twenty-nine minute making-of special, "A Journey to Cold Mountain," which repeats a lot of the material from the first documentary in essentially an extended promotional format. Next, there's yet another special, a ninety-two minute concert feature, "Words and Music of Cold Mountain," with the participation of Ms. Kidman, the director, Sting, the film's musicians, and others reading from the novel and singing the film's songs. All of these tributes seemed to me more than a little self-reverential, as though the movie were already a cinematic legend of the highest order rather than a high-class potboiler. Then, there are eleven deleted scenes; followed by three storyboard comparisons; and a brief, four-minute selection called "Sacred Harp History," a look at the historical book from which most of the film's authentic folk tunes come. The second disc concludes with Sneak Peeks at ten other Buena Vista titles, a trailer for "Cold Mountain" among them.

A four-page booklet insert provides a guide to the chapter titles and bonus materials. Unlike the booklets Disney provides for kids, adults will have no trouble following this one.

Closing Salvos from Yunda Eddie Feng:
Anthony Minghella's 1996 film "The English Patient" received great notices from journalist critics and filmmaking circles. The film also won nine Oscars, making it Miramax's biggest winner (to date) at the annual Hollywood beauty contest. Minghella's next film, 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley", grossed approximately $81 million at the North American box office (less than the $78 million collected by "The English Patient" when you consider inflation), though it was not as successful as its predecessor when it came to collecting awards. Therefore, I suppose that it makes some sort of sense that Minghella made "The English Patient" all over again for his next big motion picture project.

"Cold Mountain", set during the American Civil War, relates the stories of Inman (Jude Law, "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and Ada (Nicole Kidman, "The Hours"). He wants to get back to North Carolina from Virginia after receiving several letters from Ada that describe her loneliness and suffering. She, being the lady-like daughter of a deceased preacher, is on the brink of starvation since she is unable to eke a living from her lands. Ruby (Renee Zellweger, "Chicago"), a tough tomboy, arrives on Ada's farm to help her survive hard times. The two women fight off dangerous men, and everyone meets "colorful" characters straight out of the Cliché Handbook.

I know that "Cold Mountain" is based on Charles Frazier's award-winning novel, but the movie is basically an inferior re-make of "The English Patient". Both movies spend a great deal of time following a man's journey on foot towards meeting the love of his life. Inman, like Almasy in "The English Patient", disregards the macro-level implications of war in favor of personal considerations. There are some shots in "Cold Mountain" that are near-exact copies of the compositions found in the 1996 film, and Ada is a composite of Katharine and Hana from "The English Patient" in terms of her mechanical function within the plot. (Ada is both the lover and the memory-carrier in relation to Inman.) For good measure, we even get a piano as a calling-card for love. Perhaps it's as my film professor, Dr. Warren Buckland, said to me--that the filmmakers were re-using their techniques just as writers often use the same sentence structures to perfect their craft. That does not automatically make "Cold Mountain" a lesser effort than "The English Patient", though the end result is still much less effective than one might reasonably anticipate.

For the most part, the film's casting betrays any effectiveness that the story generates. Jude Law does not make much of an impression as the film's hero. Several cameos distracted me since I was too busy thinking about the actors' names rather than focusing on the movie itself. I was appalled by the horrible faux-Southern accents, and the humor was not well-integrated into the drama. Renee Zellweger hails from Texas, but her accent is actually the worst of the bunch. The thing is, Zellweger is fairly funny in the movie (she plays a caricature), but her humorous take on the character does not belong in "Cold Mountain".

Like Steven Spielberg, Minghella has assembled a team of filmmakers that works with him on every movie. However, while the team deserves to be commended for its efforts on both "The English Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (the latter's faults arose from Minghella's writing and directing), it shares the blame with Minghella for the problems from which "Cold Mountain" suffers. Ann Roth's costumes escape my scathing words since there's nothing obviously wrong with them. Gabriel Yared's score for "The English Patient" is the only thing by him that I like, so we can dispense with any criticism of his music for this movie (more of the usual elevator muzak that one ignores). John Seale's cinematography was surprisingly rote and undistinguished. Seale re-uses his framings and angles from "The English Patient" without achieving anything noteworthy. The worst offender on the Minghella team is probably editor Walter Murch, a winner of several Oscars.

The movie is disappointingly lumpy. Walter Murch is a genius when it comes to sound designing and film editing, but for "Cold Mountain", he seems content with chucking blobs of isolated incidents onto the screen, hoping that they'll stick together as some sort of a whole. At more than 2.5 hours, the movie is a host to several scenes/threads that should've been dropped, including the sequences with a weird medicine woman, with Natalie Portman as a war widow, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a disgraceful minister, with Inman being caught and chained to other war deserters by the Confederate army, with Ruby's romance with a traveling minstrel, etc. Most of the scenes that I would've removed from the film take place during Inman's travels. My sister tells me that Inman finds himself in various weird encounters in the novel, but as with "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers", faithfulness to either the spirit or the text of a source book means nothing if the adaptation to the film medium does not succeed on cinematic terms. Minghella and Co. made a movie that feels as if it had been shitted out in links.

One of two good things going for the movie is its depiction of the American Civil War era that puts to shame the romantic vision of the South perpetrated by "Gone With the Wind". As someone who tires of hearing about how "great" "Gone With the Wind" is, I was quite pleased to see the film's war sequences disabuse viewers of the notion that the Civil War only served to destroy the South's genteel nature. The other good thing is Nicole Kidman. Her Southern American accent is shaky like just about everyone else's (she sounds like the Australian that she is even though she managed a decent generic American accent for "Eyes Wide Shut"), but her acting is otherwise emotionally affecting. Also, it can only help that Kidman looks stunningly beautiful, fetchingly cute, heartbreakingly despondent, or ravishingly stylish (check out her black ensemble during the film's climax) when need be. Kidman really is her generation's Grace Kelly.

On DVD Town's ten-scale, I rate "Cold Mountain" a "5" out of "10".

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
8
Extras
7
Film Value
6