Cold Mountain (review)

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Out in the Cold

I’m of the opinion that there is no situation for which The Princess Bride cannot provide an appropriate quote. And the first thing that sprang to mind when I failed to be blown away by Cold Mountain was: “Nothing you can say will upset me.”

See, the Dread Pirate “Roberts” wonders whether Princess Buttercup is disturbed by his talk of how her poor-but-perfect Farm Boy (supposedly) died by his hand, and she replies, with a kind of beaten-down weariness: “Nothing you can say will upset me.” The idea is that she’s been through so much anguish that nothing that happens to her again can approach what she’s already been through, and so now she’s hardened against all smaller sorrows.

So I think that’s where I am now after The Return of the King, which has been the first, second, and third most emotionally devastating experiences I’ve had at the movies, ever, and I’ll go see it for a fourth time and it’ll come in at No. 4. It’s not fair to other films and it’s not logical, but I can’t come up with another reason why Cold Mountain left me, well, a little cold.

After all, this should be exactly the kind of film to blow me away: It’s grand and sweeping and epic and all those other lovely words that other more objective critics than I use in their reviews when they want to get quoted later on the DVD case. It’s about soulful longing and fantasies of romance that could never survive reality and ironically and tragically — in that way that normally makes me want to bawl — get to remain rarefied and idealistic and byronic because they manage to avoid having to face reality. It’s clever and literate, actually calling to mind Homer and The Odyssey; it’s O Johnny Reb, Where Art Thou? with more emphasis on the urgency of returning home to the yearned-for woman, more emphasis on the horrors that linger with the survivors of war, less emphasis on the off-kilter on-the-road comedy than the Coens would have gone for. It’s beautifully directed, with a superb sense of place and time — rural Appalachia at the end of the Civil War — by Anthony Minghella, who’s made films I love to irrational excess, like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The English Patient, and his Truly Madly Deeply is, after ROTK, the next most emotionally devastating movie I’ve ever seen.

I should love this movie. I love Jude Law, who could just coast on his gorgeousness and doesn’t. He jumps right into Inman — a Confederate soldier, wounded and sick of war, AWOL and heading home to the woman he barely knows and yet loves with an intemperate passion — and as an actor gets dirty in every good sense of the word: physically, morally, emotionally. This is the gritty, messy, complicated, charming, angry performance he’s been building to, with Enemy at the Gates and Road to Perdition and A.I., and he’s terrific. Lately I’ve been loving Nicole Kidman something fierce, now that she’s been showing us Real Stuff — like Law, she could coast but she’s interested in something more, and even though The Human Stain and The Hours were disappointing, that wasn’t for a lack of her stretching and trying something new and challenging. Here, her Ada Monroe — a dainty, citified belle who followed her preacher father to small-town life and now is fending for herself during the privations of the war — is a gal with backbone and grit beneath the pretty petticoats and polite manners, and Kidman is so thoroughly believable that you can’t imagine anyone else in the role.

I don’t love Renée Zellweger — in fact, I usually either hate her or am nothing but surprised when I don’t, in flicks like Down with Love or Chicago. She’s hamming it up here as mountain brat Ruby Thewes, who befriends Ada and helps her get the farm up and running and deals with separation issues of her own — it’s like you can see her Acting with a capital A, with the accent and attitude that scream, Gimme an Oscar already, dammit! And even though there’s an intellectual awareness, say, that Law and Kidman are putting on accents not their own, they so inhabit their characters that they’re as lost as Movie Stars can be in a role. With Zellweger, though, she’s only wearing a Ruby-skin, and the seams are showing.

That’s not enough to explain my lack of involvement in Cold Mountain, though. A better reason may be the lack of chemistry between Law and Kidman, which isn’t their fault (but could fairly be blamed on Minghella for casting them as a couple). They’re not onscreen together much, but that means their few moments should be all the more urgent, and they aren’t. If we don’t feel their passion when they’re together, it’s harder to accept their craving when they’re apart, harder to accept that the whisper of a dream of love and lust is what keeps them going through years of separation, harder for us to get the lump in the throat and the welling of tears when we’re supposed to.

But mostly, the problem is this: I’ve seen Samwise Gamgee carrying Frodo Baggins up the slopes of Mount Doom. I’ve seen Faramir, captain of Gondor, ride to what he believes will be his death merely to earn the love of his father. I’ve seen Peregrin Took leap onto a burning pyre to save a dying man he doesn’t know in repayment for a debt owed that man’s dead brother. I’ve seen an entire world shrink into molecules of fading hope and acts of selfless love. After that, how can the troubles of one Confederate soldier and one Southern belle amount to even a hill of beans in this crazy world? Nothing they can say could upset me.

Now I’m really mixing my movie-geek metaphors. Does it make me a completely irredeemable nerd that The Princess Bride helps me explain why The Lord of the Rings makes me unable to get worked up by Cold Mountain? Does it make me irredeemably “biast“? I know neither of these things is a newsflash. I’m sorry that I cannot be more objective, but I only know how to tell you how a movie makes me feel. And as prejudiced as the reasons may be, I couldn’t feel a lot for Cold Mountain.

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