It’s too bad the estate of Homer can’t reap any
royalties from the wholesale mining of The Odyssey that’s
been going on in recent years. I didn’t read Charles Frazier’s
award-winning novel, but I hear that this movie is pretty faithful
to what must have been a pretty derivative book. Cold Mountain—like
its predecessor, O Brother, Where Art Thou?—has transplanted
bits of Odysseus’s story to the American South, this time during
the Civil War. Man faces adventures and meets “characters” on his
long journey home to his ladylove, who bravely keeps the home fires
burning while fending off the advances of a real boorish suitor.
From its opening battle at The Crater, Cold Mountain jumps
back and forth over the years 1861 to 1865. There needs to be a reason
for all of this backing and forthing in time, other than that it’s
a cinematically popular way to tell a tale these days. In this case,
the rationale seems to be that there’s too much story, even
for a two-plus-hour movie, and perhaps the jumps in chronology might
mask the incompleteness of the narrative.
Delicate and educated, Ada Monroe (Kidman) comes to Cold Mountain,
North Carolina with her father, the Reverend Monroe (Sutherland),
who has sought the country air for his health. Not in town five minutes,
she meets Inman (Law)—a clear-eyed and golden-skinned
vision of masculine beauty—and the romantic wheels are set in
motion. Inman marches off to war, leaving Ada, supremely ill-suited
to fend for herself or cope with the vicissitudes of life, alone on
her farm. The next two hours recount Inman’s desertion from
the Confederate Army and his subsequent trip back home to Ada, and
her efforts to eke out a living on her farm.
One should expect to be caught up in an incredible romance of two
people enduring against incredible hardship and privation until they
can be reunited, but what’s so surprising about Cold Mountain
is how sterile, unaffecting, and utterly unengaging it is. Part of
the trouble is that Inman and Ada, instead of wringing our hearts
and enlisting our sympathies, are just there, dazzling our eyes like
crystal ornaments. No matter how carefully their hair is disheveled
or how scrupulously their fingernails are lined with grime, the aura
of Movie Star never fades.
One distinctly non-glamorous role is that Ruby Thewes (Renée
Zellweger, in the worst screen portrayal of a mountain gal since
Katherine Hepburn in Spitfire), the handywoman Ada’s
neighbor Sally (an excellent Kathy Baker) sends over to help
Ada make ends meet. Ruby maybe was meant to be a major and admirable
character, but she persists throughout the movie as so-called comic
relief. Zellweger’s cornpone hillbilly act never gets out of
the way long enough for us to form any realization of her character
as anything but a caricature. Swinging her arms wildly as she stumps
around taking big, cow-patch steps, forthright Ruby takes charge of
Ada’s homestead and teaches her how to farm. This is hard news
indeed for Teague (Winstone), the home guard captain who hopes
to marry his way into Ada’s property.
Whether on Cold Mountain or on the road back to it, the story’s
presentation of the harsh realities of life during wartime also reminded
me a bit of another little tale, The Iliad. The aspirations
to Greek epic-hood are all just too much. There’s the succession
of folks—some helpful, some not—whom Inman meets on the
road home (through country curiously short of black folks). The spectacle
comes to a crescendo in a scene of mythical proportion, where Inman
has the monstrous task of dragging bodies he’s chained to.
Even the good stuff is watered down here. T Bone Burnett,
who was also music producer on O Brother, has recruited Alison
Krauss plus presents another group of American music originals—shape-note
singers. The music, and particularly the hymn-singing, while lovely,
but has the “leftovers” feeling of having been there and
done that. And lest we shouldn’t know that it’s a sad
story, Burnett has loaded the movie with plenty of minor-key music.
Then there’s the overlong, artistically shot soft-core scene
of Ada and Inman, which fails even to provide some cheap thrills.
Are they adding minutes and making long movies in the hopes that,
somewhere in these 155 minutes, you’ll find enough substance
to get your eight-dollars-worth?