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Cold Mountain

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2004 1 Jan
Cold Mountain
from Film Forum, 01/02/04

Charles Frazier's bestselling novel Cold Mountain is an epic romance that has now become a spectacular motion picture under the direction of Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). While the movie does seem to go out of its way to avoid the issue of slavery, it serves up a compelling story about a man and a woman separated by war and how irrational faith gives them the strength to endure and find each other again.

Discerning viewers should take note: This is a film about hope enduring the trials of human depravity. The war scenes are graphic and nightmarish. Sexual temptation confronts our hero in several guises, and the film includes a fair bit of nudity.

But ultimately, Cold Mountain is a sort of Pilgrim's Progress tale about faith-filled hearts that press on through evil days in hopes of attaining true love. It follows a young Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law) who deserts the Southern forces to trudge his way back home, where his true love may still be waiting for him.

Along the way, he encounters a terrified group of escaping slaves in a cornfield, a sexually perverse reverend (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a wicked brothel manager (Giovanni Ribisi), a lonely and desperate war widow, and patrols on the hunt for deserters. In the end, he must put his life on the line to prevent disaster for the one he loves.

Inman's love, a beautiful minister's daughter named Ada (Nicole Kidman), meanwhile, tries to avoid the clutches of a wicked man who has been appointed to serve as a local sheriff while the able-bodied men are away at war. He uses his authority in despicable ways, as if hunting deserters is just his excuse for indulging his appetite for torture. Ada becomes thankful for the support of a feisty woman named Ruby (Renee Zellweger), who teaches her to fend for herself in an increasingly dark and dangerous world.

In Frazier's vision of the South, characters long for but cannot find a state of peace, where civility and sacrament can be enjoyed without corruption and fear. In their battle-scarred world, they must grasp what pieces of Eden's wreckage they can.

Minghella captures unforgettable and poetic imagery, and he draws some powerfully memorable performances from his cast. (Natalie Portman makes an especially memorable appearance.) We are drawn through an unpredictable tour of melodrama, comedy, paralyzing violence, pastoral beauty, surrealistic backwoods depravity, and glimmers of grace.

The real problem with this film is the way in which it has been severely edited. Minghella rushes us from one spectacular sequence to the next without giving us time to absorb the weight of what is happening. Watching it is a rare and excruciating experience—like reading the Cliff's Notes version of The Odyssey and imagining how compelling it must be to read the full epic. It's 2003's most memorable misfire. My full review is at Looking Closer.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Minghella's greatest contribution to the film is the casting. While the leads are certainly able to carry the film, they don't have to. The supporting cast is brilliant and adds the flavor and texture that the story needs and deserves." He also highlights the film's theme of hope, hope that persists in spite of harsh realities. "Hope is the backbone of our faith; the steel in our believing. Those without hope do not have the strength to endure during the hard times. This world can often be an unpleasant place in which to live. During those times, we can remind ourselves that we are not of this world. We have the promise of a life beyond this one."

Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) calls it "a hauntingly beautiful film that pulls the viewer into the characters' tragic lives, thereby underscoring the human cost of war."

Lisa Rice (Movieguide) does not see hope or faith portrayed in Inman and Ada's story. She says the movie's "real problem is with its deplorable worldview, which, like many other current films, promotes quiet acquiescence to despair, rather than true healing available in Christ."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "If it weren't for the powerfully poetic camera work and a luminous star turn by Nicole Kidman, Cold Mountain easily could be dismissed as hokey historical melodrama." He calls Renee Zellweger "supremely annoying. She overacts shamelessly." The scenic locations, moody visuals and atmospheric score … this over-long, overripe epic seem more substantive than it is."

Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) calls Cold Mountain " the most beautiful bad movie this year has produced. An incredible opening sequence, Jude Law's compelling take on a man transformed by the horrors of war, and the people he meets on the way home from the battlefield redeem the film from being little more than an expensive soap opera. It is too bad that the stretches of film between the great parts of the film are long and unconvincing."

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "From a purely intellectual and artistic vantage point, the work Minghella creates serves its purpose well. He coaxes brilliant performances from his stars. His storytelling [is] luxurious and compelling. Even his moral conundrums can prove instructive, but one had better have a fixed, godly worldview through which to filter them in order to survive them."

The complaint offered by Holly McClure (Crosswalk) is that the film does not have a completely happy ending. "Whether artsy, independent Hollywood filmmakers want to admit it or not, audiences root for the good guys and cheer for star-crossed lovers. When you have a movie about two people who are kept from each other until the very end, the result better be a happy ending that will give the audience something to cheer about." (Once again, a critic argues that an artist should strive to give the audience what it wants. If that were an admirable artistic practice, we'd have no tragedies.)

Mainstream critics debate the pros and cons of this Oscar-hopeful here.