If I had not gotten past all my silly fantasies about Return of the King winning any Oscars (other than for special effects or maybe Best Director), they were swept away at last night’s viewing of Cold Mountain. This is much more typical Academy fare. It is very reminiscent of Gone With the Wind in that it has similar elements–Civil War, southern belle left to fend for herself while waiting for her handsome hero to return, a place (Black Cove Farm) that seems more important than life.
After the initial bloody battle scenes at the siege of Petersburg, interwoven with flashbacks to pre-war hoopla and the brief-but-meaningful encounters between Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman), the story turns to Inman’s long walk home and Ada’s struggle to keep alive while waiting for him. If it were just a sappy love story with two-and-a-half hours of a pair of lovers running across a field toward each other, it still wouldn’t have been a bad one, thanks to Law’s excellent performance and his Ulysses-like journey. His travels alone would have made a fine movie.
But we also see how Ada is faring at home. Being a well-bred Charleston lady (i.e., useless at farming) and faced with a corrupt “Home Guard” that zealously tries to root out deserters while laying claim to whatever property they wish to seize, she struggles until a rough-and-tumble mountain girl named Ruby (Rene Zellweger) comes to her aid. Ruby is as straightforward and homespun as they come, and Zellweger’s portrayal kicks the movie in the shins every time it threatens to get maudlin. She is a hoot and, yet, not just comic relief. While at times a bit over-the-top, she is the most Oscar-worthy of the three main characters.
I don’t know if it was the intended effect of the filmmakers, but this was far less a love story than one about the terrible effects of war on individuals. It features Donald Sutherland, Natalie Portman and Kathy Baker taking turns at some great (and in the case of Portman, surprising) performances, as well as a host of minor characters that are beautifully portrayed.
If I have any complaint it is that it’s a bit predictable in spots. It doesn’t shock you when a character dies. The set ups are a bit obvious. But overall it’s more than just a war story or love story or a chase story or a city-girl-learns-to-survive story. Cold Mountain is all of them rolled into a darn fine movie.