Cold Mountain

Gone with the wind? No ma'am, it went thataway...
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The Independent Culture

The Odyssey may be one of the great narrative blueprints against which all subsequent stories must measure themselves, but you wonder whether it would pass muster with today's screenwriting gurus. An intrepid hero strives to come home from battle, braving obstacle after obstacle - it's just one damn thing after another, not exactly what you'd call a complex story arc. And where's the room for character development?

Like the more flip O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier's best-selling novel, is a Deep South reworking of the Odyssey (it's also laced, like the Coens' film, with gritty Appalachian folk music). Minghella fared well with battle-torn romance in The English Patient, but that film benefited from an exotic, even surreal perspective on the Second World War, while Cold Mountain explores more familiar territory. Wounded during the Siege of Petersburg in 1864, Confederate soldier Inman (Jude Law) deserts and heads homewards to North Carolina, where his faithful Penelope is preacher's daughter Ada (Nicole Kidman). Back at Cold Mountain, Ada struggles to keep her homestead going, while fending off a predatory Ray Winstone, piratical in beard and leather hat, as the local Home Guard leader responsible for hunting down deserters.

Any romance set against a Civil War background must inevitably contend with the shadow of Gone With the Wind, but the starkness of Minghella's vision is a reaction against that film's lush lineage. Cold Mountain presents the war in the South as an endemic condition of brutality, inflicting desperation and squalor even on people living nowhere near the combat, simply unfortunate enough to be born in grim times.

If Cold Mountain wins the predicted Oscars, it will surely be on the strength of the urgent and strikingly brutal battle sequences at its start. This is Civil War combat reimagined partly in the kinetic wake of Saving Private Ryan, and partly by analogy with the First World War: faced with these rows of trenches carved out of grey mud, we could be looking at the Somme. When Union soldiers charge into a mined-out crater, we are struck by the density of bodies crammed violently into a small space, and aware of the men as disposable flesh, ready to be minced up by Confederate fire.

After this, Cold Mountain settles into a more lyrical mode, notwithstanding occasional eruptions of violence. The film's weakest aspect is the romance between Inman and Ada. When the two first meet and step quizzically around each other's attentions, their awkwardness defies belief. Ada, a fragrant belle newly arrived from Charleston, instantly sets her cap at this rugged man-boy, sullen in sweat and plaid. She's pert and brittle, Kidman playing up the crisp Katharine Hepburn haughtiness, while he's prone to stare at the ground and mutter enigmatically about the inadequacy of language. We can barely credit two such experienced screen flirts as Law and Kidman being this gauche, coyness being surely the hardest register for actors to capture in these cynical times (though to see it done superbly, watch the courtship of Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider in this year's overlooked All the Real Girls).

Things warm up once the couple part: from here on, the film is like Sleepless in Seattle, Secession-style. After her father (a richly mellow Donald Sutherland) decorously croaks in the garden, Ada struggles on with the help of Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a strapping lass who strides in and slices the head off an obstreperous rooster by way of introduction. Zellweger's Ruby, with a voice like a creaking barn door, is something of a hillbilly panto turn - you expect her to jam a corncob pipe in her mouth - but her peppery babble and can-do briskness liven the film up no end. It's just as well, since Kidman - photogenically retro-rural under a big Homburg - fades into poised pallor as the film progresses.

Law, conversely, comes into his own once the going gets rougher - it's amazing what greasy hair and a thicket of beard will do to give a man heroic heft. Like Ada, Inman too benefits from the company of robust character turns - recognisable faces such as Brendan Gleeson, an ebulliently sleazy Philip Seymour Hoffman, and oddest of all, Eileen Atkins as a cranky crone who tends goats, herbs and an accent that only counts as Deep South if you include Catford in the definition. A string of isolated incidents along the way includes an encounter with Natalie Portman as a young mother in peril, and a lively episode in which Law enjoys the dubious hospitality of Giovanni Ribisi as a hillbilly with a houseful of rough and ready women - this Odyssey's answer to the Sirens.

I can't help admiring the way that Minghella allows the narrative to feel baggy and happenstance, rather than attempt to sew it into a more Hollywood version of coherence. Even so, the various registers - the lyricism, the romance, the exploration of a violent landscape - refuse to gel into a satisfying whole. It feels as if the romance is there to provide a frame for the two leads' parallel stories, while apart from the vigorous execution of the battle scenes themselves, the film only goes so far in making us see the Civil War in a fresh light. A single glimpse of slaves on a plantation feels like a token reminder to us not to get too sentimental about the Southern side of the conflict.

Minghella has taken what could have been a straight Hollywood romance and attempted to work it through outside Hollywood conventions. Even so, for all the film's sincerity, it finally feels too much like the sort of elegant, rather detached prestige project that studios look to for kudos at Oscar time. For all the urgency of the war scenes, Cold Mountain leaves you with the impression of a highly artificial film, with an oddly vaporous, dream-like quality. But perhaps that's not surprising for a film about the American South largely shot in Romania. Think of it not as an American epic, but as the biggest Romanian art film you've ever seen, and Cold Mountain starts to look like a much more curious anomaly than you first suspected.