Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Cold Mountain

Posted By on Wed, Dec 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM

Of note in the endless media blitz surrounding this big-budget extravaganza is the acting debut of the fame-stricken (and apparently hotheaded) darling of Detroit — rock star Jack White of the White Stripes. White composed a couple of the songs he sings in the blockbuster movie as Georgia, a minstrel-on-the-run from the dangers of the Civil War. White, who’s currently under investigation for allegedly beating up a rival in Detroit’s Magic Stick rock club and whose latest album has been nominated for four Grammy awards, fits the role of the rebel well (no need to change the hair much). And who would’ve guessed that the on-screen lusty attraction between Ruby (Renee Zellweger) and Georgia (White) would spill into reality, with their much-ballyhooed romance carried out in part in Detroit and in large part in the tabloid press. Yet in Cold Mountain, Jack did more than all right. His out-of-the-pocket intensity served him well in the fistful of words and scenes he immortalized. The showing could turn out to be the tip of juicier (i.e. beyond five minutes of screen time) roles. Oh, and then there’s the other two and a half hours of the film.

Cold Mountain is driven by a quest, an unrelenting act of devotion worthy of any classical novel. On the cinematic side, Cold Mountain is haunted by the earmarks of a TV mini-series: a historical setting, tempered violence which takes back seat to a gooey romance between a man and a woman far too beautiful to exist in everyday life, volume turned up high, lights low, and the occasional cheesy moment and two-dimensional character.

Early on, director Anthony Minghella bombards his audience with an impressive apocalyptic haze — underground explosions that transform the earth above into a soup of stars and stripes, red smoke and mud with burned and bloody limbs flailing. The audience is never allowed to feel the full force of the imagery without some overbearing music to buffer the load, from a sorrowful woman crooning, “I’ve come to find my true love,” to an angelic chorus. The director’s real interest takes hold when the lead character decides to heed his love’s letter-written pleas.

OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for a TV miniseries and I harbor a sticky spot in my heart for swashbuckling romance. Even so, I found myself, and others, looking at our watches at about the two-hour point with still a good half hour to go and no commercial interruptions to keep us chomping.

The story is thus: a man named Inman (Jude Law) finds his raison d’être living back home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and her name is Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), “a true Southern Belle.” They’ve hardly shared more than a handful of sentences before Inman marches off to the Civil War. During the ongoing years of brutal upheaval and its devastation of the head, heart and body, their fear-filled days and longings are quelled only by the warm-toned tintypes they have of each other — images that work as a director’s porthole, as well, from time to time, from place to place.

When Charles Frazier heard about a man named Inman leaving the Civil War, wounded, to walk back to his Carolina mountain home, it seemed like an American odyssey, and was enough to inspire the writing of his first novel: Cold Mountain.

Which in turn inspired Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient) to adapt Frazier’s story to film. Minghella has been quoted as saying of the story, “...it sits on top of The Odyssey, of Chinese Buddhist poems about cold mountain as a destination, and of a whole series of walking or pilgrimage literature — Cold Mountain is a book about journeys.”

As Inman, Law pulls out of his sleeve a world of secret sensitivity and nonverbal versatility. As Ada, Kidman proves herself his equal, reaching across time and space with fervent passion. The bond expressed between Law and Kidman keeps the film threaded together in the face of underdeveloped characters like Ada’s friend Ruby (Zellweger), who’s pieced together by crass and snappy comic-relief dialogue, and the funny but lifeless Reverend Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose character could have been skipped completely. An exception is Natalie Portman as Sara. In a heartrending scene, Inman and Sara manage to stab directly into the truth of war’s emotional fallout, raising the bar of the film’s integrity. After all is sad and done, Cold Mountain left me in a dreamy state of mind, troubled in a pleasant way, still living inside a sweeping epic that juxtaposes love and war like delirious, wandering lovers — held together by a handful of larger-than-life embraces.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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