Saturday, February 07, 2004

Cold Mountain

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2004 at AMC Fenway #5 (first-run)

Unlike with his previous two films (The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley), Anthony Minghella doesn't quite display his penchant for making two and a half hours feel like seven here. It feels like four, tops. As with another drawn-out movie this awards season (Return Of The King), Cold Mountain features some very impressive sequences and looks impeccable. It intersperses them with immense aggravation, though.

What I did like was the idea of how war, especially one as as filled with anger as the American Civil War, brings out the worst in people. I had never heard of the Confederate Home Guard, although they make sense, and I'm sure would-be dictators were givin similar free reign in the North. They are vicious in how they hunt down deserters, or runaway slaves, or escaped prisoners, and use those duties as an excuse to keep control of their communities. Ray Winstone, best known in the US for his doughy, washed-up ex-thief in Sexy Beast, is a commanding presense here as Teague, the feared head of the Home Guard for the town of Cold Mountain, who seems to be acting less through patriotism and more to regain what was his before his family fell on somewhat hard times before the war.

Jude Law's Inman goes on a sort of odyssey; though it's even less direct a transposition of Homer's Odyssey to the south than O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he's a great warrior journeying back to his lady, unaware that in the time he's been away, his town has been taken over and his love terrorized. He engages in various adventures on the way, meating a hypocritical minister played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a young widow played by Natalie Portman, and others. Almost all are either perpetrators or victims of barbarities that demonstrate that what is happening on the homefront is as horrific as the violence he's fleeing at the front lines.

And then there's his lady love, the beautiful and well-schooled preacher's daughter, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) with little practical knowledge. I can spend a great deal of time looking at Nicole Kidman, and her accent's not bad when she's not using overly flowery language... But that's part of the problem. She's too beautiful. Despite the hard times she falls upon, there's never a line on her face, a bag under her eyes, the slightest bit of yellow to her teeth, etc. She wakes up in the morning looking radiant. When her hair is "wild" or "disheveled", it's disheveled in pretty ringlets that fall just so across her face. (Natalie Portman gets similar treatment in her segment; in both cases, we're treated to several shots of their hands to show their dirty fingernails) When she and her friend Ruby go on the run from Teague toward the end of the movie, her long black coat and blue pants are eminently practical and obviously the work of a talented costume designer.

As to Ruby... Well, at least Renée Zellweger's squinty, just-got-punched-in-the-stomach appearance actually fits this character. How she got nominated for an Oscar is beyond me, though, since she's a shrill, obnoxious scenery-chewer. It's not all bad - she's meant to be brusque and annoying in contrast to Ada - but it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the performances.

Cold Mountain isn't a bad movie; it just goes on too long and for a story about war's ugliness, it is often far to pretty to be taken seriously.

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