What a frustrating experience Cold Mountain is, both during the viewing and upon reflection. The opening 45 minutes are among the worst of the year. They epitomize everything wrong with Hollywood today. They’re melodramatic, clichéd, cheesy, overblown, and repetitive. Minghella shows the complete lack of trust in the audience that’s all too prevalent in modern American cinema. How many times must we see Inman (Jude Law) glance longingly at Ada’s (Nicole Kidman) picture, and vice versa while Ada’s intrusive voiceover dreamily reminisces about their glory days—okay, okay, it was more like 10 minutes—together, and how she longs for him to return from the war? Once is plenty, thanks; we get it. Guess what, angel? He wants to come back too! Yay! The syrup is piled on the emotional waffles with constant slow-motion shots, cute kids, and sappy dialogue. Minghella basically empties his bag of treacle. At one point, I turned to my friend and whispered, “This is why Hollywood blows. This rubbish will probably win Best Picture!”
Then a funny thing happens. Minghella begins focusing on Inman and Ada’s stories separately, using their love as a backdrop. Ruby (an electric Renee Zellweger) enters the picture as Ada’s helper and companion, breathing life into the picture in the process. Meanwhile, a haggard Inman wearily claws his way towards Cold Mountain town, running into the usual assortment of obstacles that usually befall solitary travelers in these kinda flicks (traitors, lonely women, etc). Despite this cliché, however, Cold Mountain becomes engaging and somewhat riveting during this stretch, which lasts for about 80-90 minutes. Law lacks chemistry with Kidman, but plays the solo vagabond extremely well, his beard and eyes fatigued and lonely. His various encounters along the way is somewhat of a recycled tale, but it’s executed with enough skill to be moderately riveting anyway.
Ada and Ruby’s branch also works for the most part, primarily thanks to Zellweger, who vanishes inside her character, delivering an animated yet believable performance. Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws here, particularly an offensive one involving Ruby and her father, who’s admitted to beating, abusing, and abandoning her as a child. Now, Ruby ain’t no soft girly-girl, but a tough, take-no-shit southern chick that’s persevered through hellish times and come out just fine. Yet after some initial resistance—which feels like little more than the obligatory shooing before the inevitable cave—Ruby’s anger melts away and she shelters her father (who happens to be one of them deserters who’ll be killed if found). Even weak-willed ladies (which Ruby is certainly not) are unlikely to overlook past sins, particularly those of such severity, simply because it’s wartime. If that’s the message of Cold Mountain—unify at all costs, discard all offenses—I’ll look elsewhere for my moral lessons.
The visual are outstanding, with snowy photography capturing the chilly landscapes and frosty roads. Minghella clearly has an excellent view of the world which he’s filming, making the mediocre finished product all the more exasperating. When not overused, the music is appropriately somber. Despite its many flaws, Cold Mountain is worth seeing for its lovely cinematography, Zellweger’s energized performance, and its meaty middle. It’s too bad this sandwich came with moldy bread.