Civil Bore

Even patient filmgoers might need to fight urge to desert tepid 'Cold Mountain'

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Love means never having to say you're sorry about anything you do during wartime. That might as well be the slogan of writer-director Anthony Minghella's fancy anti-war romantic spectacles, The English Patient (1996) and its spiritual prequel, the far less accomplished and even less plausible Civil War epic Cold Mountain. Minghella can be a genius when he directs his own original screenplays, like Truly Madly Deeply (1991), the thinking and feeling man's Ghost. As an adapter he has a glass jaw and a tin ear.

"Maybe you can't see my face," says Minghella's typically scarred hero, played this time by Jude Law, not The English Patient's Ralph Fiennes. "But if you could see my inside, my whatever you want to name it, my spirit, that's the fear I have -- I think I'm ruined ... If I had goodness, I lost it. If I had anything tender in me I shot it dead."

Does anyone believe Nicole Kidman won't be able to love him tender after that sensitive-guy confession?

Charles Frazier's original novel is much admired, but the movie pushes its effects harder than Frazier does; it also loses the benefit of his solid, evocative prose, and either reproduces or mimics or riffs on his dialogue, which is easy to read but impossible to speak. The result is a flabby, episodic phantasmagoria starring Law as Inman, a hired hand in the tiny hamlet of Cold Mountain, N.C., and Kidman as Ada, the beautiful and cultivated new woman in town.

Inman falls for Ada right before he and his pals join the Confederate Army mostly for the youthful heck of it -- only to learn that War is Hell. Inman and Ada share a few terse yet loaded verbal exchanges, several torrid glances and one passionate kiss. That's enough to sustain this pensive Johnny Reb through the inevitable disillusion of battlefield atrocities and a series of casual horrors when he deserts the Army and treks back to her. Quel surprise.

A can-do gal named Ruby (Renee Zellweger) saves Ada's farm and possibly her life, but the memory of Inman burns in Ada's soul despite the death of her father (Donald Sutherland), the deprivations of the home front and the ominous attentions of the "Home Guard" leader Teague (Ray Winstone).

Teague acts like the Gestapo boss of the Confederacy. He smokes out deserters or slackers and shoots them; he uses apparently limitless powers to persecute rivals and pursue personal desires, Ada included. He's vile, also uninteresting. Minghella must sweat to keep his scenes dynamic, in one scene guiding Teague's albino henchman (Charlie Hunnam) through a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers dance routine during a multiple murder and torture sequence. Yet you can see why Teague and his minions are so crucial to Minghella. With the Home Guard in the picture, the filmmaker can focus the audience's loathing on characters hated equally in North and South.

The movie starts with a nightmare: Union tunnelers set a cataclysmic explosion under Rebel lines that turns into a slaughter of Union solders caught in the resulting crater. But no matter how concrete the carnage in Minghella's epics, war ultimately becomes an abstraction, a magnet for every sort of cruelty, depravity and injustice. Of course, war is like that, but Minghella makes the point too easily, and sentimentalizes lovers who long for a separate peace.

The juxtaposition of grisliness and girlishness fills you with simple queasiness and dread, not enlarged sympathies or enlightenment. Inman's journey becomes a series of predictable downbeat vignettes: You wait for the worst to happen and it always does. These episodes are so florid or didactic, and so marred with performers acting as if they're in countercultural street theater, that you can't believe them for a single second.

It's hard to know which flight of lurid fancy is the worst. Maybe it's the sub-Felliniesque charade of Inman and a lascivious preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) having dinner with a slippery backwoodsman (Giovanni Ribisi) who treats his home as a brothel. Or maybe it's the pathetic interlude with the lonely mother (Natalie Portman) who says "I had my way they'd take metal altogether out of this world. Every blade, every gun." Combine Inman's story with Ada's and Ruby's and you've got a parade of bumper stickers fit for an old VW van: "Make love, not war." "Sisterhood is powerful." "Music heals."

Well, the movie does convince you of that last one. The great T Bone Burnett has put together a kicking compilation of roots music, and Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's father, a fiddler and leader of a three-man band, manages to go deep within himself and pull out a performance with more than one string to it. Given the circumstances, that's quite an accomplishment.

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