Goldilocks and the Three Beards
History, as we're frequently told, is written by the winners. This is usually taken to mean that the losers in any given conflict can expect to be ridiculed and demonised once the dust has settled. In today's more sensitive climate, of course, this isn't always the case, particularly in the cinema - where having a go at certain nations or ethnic groupings can seriously damage potential box office takings.
Anyone looking at movies about the American Civil War, in particular, would be forgiven for getting the impression that these days everyone in Hollywood thinks the wrong side won, given the number of films with noble and tragic Southerners in them. The only film I can think of offhand with the North as the unambiguous good guys is the fairly obscure Glory, while sticking up for the Confederacy you've got Gone With The Wind, Run Of The Arrow, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and many others - including Anthony Minghella's new Cold Mountain, based on a novel by Charles Frazier.
Minghella the Merciless' latest is, like his best-known film The English Patient, an epic romance about the inhabitants of Cold Mountain, a small town that's technically in the United States but in fact seems to be largely populated by Australians, Brits, and Canadians. Preacher's daughter Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) finds herself strangely drawn towards ruggedly virile carpenter and part-time facial-hair cultivator Inman (an interestingly-cast Jude Law), but before they can explore their feelings the war breaks out and off he goes to fight those damn Yankees, eventually winding up in a military hospital. In his absence Ada has fallen on hard times and finds herself forced to rely on the help of no-nonsense country girl Ruby (an eccentric and extremely loud performance by Renee Zellweger), while the town itself falls under the sway of the tyrannical militia captain Teague (an almost unrecognisable Ray Winstone, looking like a cross between Brian Blessed and Yosemite Sam). But help is on the way as before you can say 'I'm freeee!' Inman escapes from hospital and decides to head for home and the woman he hasn't been able to stop thinking about...
There's not a huge amount about Cold Mountain that's terribly original. It strongly reminded me of Josey Wales and O Brother Where Art Thou? in particular, but just one of the impressive things about it is the way it manages to seem to be about classic and resonant themes rather than simply being derivative. Others include some spectacular photography, impressively grisly and visceral battle scenes (particularly one sequence which is basically a vast scrum in a crater slowly filling with blood), a haunting soundtrack, and an extremely solid script. This is quite a long film but it doesn't seem like it all, so carefully is it paced.
This is, of course, an extremely strong cast - apart from the leads it also includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Donald Sutherland, Cillian Murphy, and Natalie Portman (practicing her wan-and-anguished face ahead of Episode III), and they all pretty much deliver the goods. There's a very slight tendency for the southern accents to get out of control - Zellweger in particular seems to think she's auditioning for Calamity Jane - but on the whole Minghella keeps the 'Well I do declare'-ing under control. The director also displays a hitherto-unseen talent for action. The old-school shootouts punctuating much of the movie are very well put on, with Law and Winstone making surprisingly credible gunfighters. This is being promoted as a classy, Oscar-trawling drama, but Western fans will probably enjoy it too.
In fact the only thing about this film that didn't quite ring true for me was the romance between Law and Kidman. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the scenes of their initial courtship just seem a bit implausible (we're invited to believe that Law is drawn to the sound of Kidman playing the piano on the back of a moving cart a hundred yards away), while the outbreak of rumpo which rapidly follows their eventual reunion is shot and edited to resemble a particularly competitive bout of Naked Twister (it's still extremely watchable, I hasten to add). But this thankfully isn't a major problem, as it's hope and unresolved feeling that draws these people back together, rather than the strength of their actual relationship.
I can't actually fault Cold Mountain very much at all - it's yet another film that I wouldn't begrudge picking up major silverware in the awards season just around the corner. It may not be quite as good as The English Patient, but it's arguably more accessible, and Minghella is to be praised for taking such an eclectic set of actors and influences and creating a film so steeped in traditional storytelling virtues. Recommended.