Movie Review
Cold Mountain
2003
Director: Anthony Minghella
Cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger
A


the Oscars are a big, empty, infallibly disheartening American spectacle, especially for people who actually care about movies, and even more so for cinephiles convinced that the most interesting work today is being done not only well outside Hollywood, but largely outside the Western Hemisphere.

This is a seemingly unfathomable concept for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who, year after year, opt to award mostly the same sort of middlebrow "prestige" movies, released near the very end of the year, and cannily campaigned for by studios such as Miramax and Dreamworks. And, really, forget hemisphere: My two favorite films of last year, Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, for all practical purposes, don’t even exist in the same cinematic universe as Oscar.

Every year, however, there are some welcome exceptions to the banality that perennially plagues the studios’ slate of force-fed Oscar bait. Last year, Roman Polanski’s personal and powerful The Pianist, which took home Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Adrien Brody), and Best Director and even almost upset, in the eleventh hour, the crass and rather worthless Chicago for the Academy’s top prize, was most certainly such an exception.

This year, along with Clint Eastwood’s flawed but masterful Mystic River, Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (Miramax’s prime Oscar horse) is notable for being a work of considerable artistry and vision thrown head-first into the Oscar race. Like Minghella’s Oscar-sweeper The English Patient some seven years ago, Cold Mountain is a gorgeously mounted adaptation of a high-profile novel set during a war but ultimately centering on a love affair. From Gone with the Wind and Casablanca onward, if any particular premise seems to scream Oscar, it’s this one.

Surprisingly, Cold Mountain, while set during the American Civil War, probably has more in common with the ethereal mysticism of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line than with Gone with the Wind’s sweeping Old Hollywood hugeness. For a movie that obviously cost a fortune to make, Cold Mountain is quite an intimate love story, and, even more remarkably, it’s strange and moody and takes its time, breathing and pulsing with life and aesthetic vitality in a way that so few recent, equivalently costly Hollywood endeavors have.

If Malick’s film served as a meditation on war’s ravaging effects on nature’s balance, then Minghella’s is most appealing as a look at the necessity of sustaining certain essential human qualities in the midst of almost absurdly harsh inhumanity (it also echoes The Pianist in this regard). But where the gradual dissolution of a romantic outlook of any sort was, in my view, one of Polanski’s film’s most subtly admirable attributes, what I found most compelling in Cold Mountain was Minghella’s conviction that, in the face of its opposite, clinging desperately to love (and the ability to love) is of the utmost importance.

Cold Mountain, adapted from the book by Charles Frazier, involves Confederate deserter Inman’s (Jude Law) odyssey back to the titular North Carolina town to re-ignite the passion of his very brief but deeply felt affair with preacher’s daughter Ada (Nicole Kidman), an affair begun just before he had left to fight in the war). I’ve read a number of reviews questioning whether the romantic intensity of the early scenes between Ada and Inman are enough to carry us through in actually caring about whether or not the primaries will reunite in the end.

I would first answer that things in this film feel so inadvertently driven by the forces of fate that their reunion seems pretty much inevitable from the moment they depart, following a long, juicy kiss (which is nothing compared to what they do once they hook back up!). Even if its emotions do register on a smaller, more moving scale, this is still a Big Movie of quasi-mythic proportions.

Next, I think the fact that Cold Mountain is, on some level, a calculated Oscar bid, provides it (quite incidentally and ironically) with just the right amount of distance, or (excuse the pun) coldness, needed to convey its sense of romantic longing with an uncanny urgency. Admittedly, this has to be one of the only films to have ever benefited artistically from its financial interests’ thirst for Oscar gold, but, hey, if it works, it works, and, for me, at least, it worked astonishingly well.

But, just for the record, Harvey Weinstein is still evil.


By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2004-01-14
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