As a crucible for the ‘new birth of freedom’ in America, the Civil War was an agent for immense social, political and economic change. Minghella uses this historical cauldron for a comment on human nature, love, loyalty and survival, emerging with a distillation of the values of equality and family. It centres on the tale of Inman (Jude Law), whose love for his sweetheart Ada (Nicole Kidman) back home on Cold Mountain fortifies him through three years of ordeals which test his humanity in every possible way. She, in turn, must learn to survive in ways her upbringing as a genteel Southern belle has not prepared her in the least, and her memory of him sustains her equally through gruelling trials.
When war is announced the young men in the congregation of Cold Mountain church whoop and embrace each other with joy. The women do not. Ada and Inman have only briefly known each other, their words few but their looks pregnant with intention and meaning. Nevertheless, in a farewell full of yearning and restrained passion, she promises to wait for him, giving him a book and a ‘tin-type’ photograph which becomes a vital touchstone for him in the years they will be apart.
With the young men and the slaves gone, Ada lives with her minister father (Donald Sutherland) on Black Cove farm, which is quickly going to rack and ruin. Determined she will not have anyone come from the town to cook for her, she avows that she must learn to cook, and her father regrets that he brought her up as a companion rather than with skills enabling her to fend for herself. Her independent spirit is sorely tested after her father unexpectedly dies. Facing starvation and with her fine clothes having fallen apart, she is too ashamed and too proud to ask for help. Nevertheless, help arrives in the form of itinerant Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a loud, no-nonsense bulldozer in a homespun dress, who announces she will not be a servant but will work the farm with Ada so they will survive the coming winter. As she whirls around the farm calling out the priorities that need seeing to, Ada hurries behind with pencil and paper, appreciating the practical skills Ruby can teach her. Their developing relationship is one of the best features of the film as these two very different people learn one from the other. Hardened by years of abuse and deprivation, Ruby gradually develops softer sensibilities and opens her heart to reconcile with her long-absent father, who has unexpectedly become a fiddle player, his formerly violent nature transformed by music. It’s just as beautiful to see Ada, pink-cheeked and healthy, working hard in the sun, no longer skeletal or helpless. Both Kidman and Zellweger are exceptional, giving the sense that each relished the chance to show a range fully allowed and expected by Minghella, but Zellweger steals the show.
The film begins in the middle of the story, going back and forth in time and between Ada’s hard life on the farm and Inman’s experiences in the war. The infamous Siege of Petersburg in 1864, where the Union’s strategy to end months of stalemate by laying explosives in a tunnel under the Confederate trenches, gives a spectacular, bloody and shocking scene close to the start of the film, full of fire and smoke, mud and pools of blood. The sudden reversals of war are shown with devastating impact in the subsequent Battle of the Crater, where 4000 Union soldiers died, many when they rushed to advance, trapped in the hole opened by the explosion. A Confederate voice shouts, ‘It’s a turkey shoot!’ and they rally, shooting at will into the melee, fighting hand to hand with bayonets. 1000 Confederate soldiers also died that day and Inman is taken to an Army hospital, badly wounded.
It’s a pivotal point for the story and for Inman. Disillusioned, he has lost heart for his cause. The only meaning for him now is in Ada, despite not knowing whether she is still waiting for him, and in his home, Cold Mountain. Her letters to him are often undelivered, but Ada’s voice-over forms a significant part of the narrative in illuminating her inner state, while Inman’ searing experiences soon silence, in shame, his desire to share with her what has happened to him.
For two thirds of the film Inman is on the long journey walking back to North Carolina. On his way he encounters temptation through desire, and betrayal, as well as the freely-given kindness of strangers; travels with a disreputably carnal but endearing companion, the Rev. Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman); is captured by Home Guard Militiamen and pressed into a chain gang. He is rescued, drugged and nursed when wounded, and moved to compassion by the plight of pretty young mother, Sara (Natalie Portman) alone in her cabin with her sick baby, who is set upon by starving Union soldiers intent on the expected rape and pillage of wartime.
Meanwhile, home on Cold Mountain, Ada is continuously the subject of unwelcome attention by the feared Captain Teague (a thoroughly sleazy and brutal Ray Winstone). He and his psychopathic sons, especially Bosie (a chilling Charlie Hunnam) punish and torture suspected harbourers of deserters with sanctioned tyranny.
The performances of the major actors in supporting roles add enormously to the impact of this film. Eileen Atkins is serene and superb as Maddy the Goat Woman, who saves Inman from certain slow and agonising death. Giovanni Ribisi as the backwoodsman Junior, with a harem of lusty women in his cabin, is manically venal, and Brendan Gleeson as Stobrod, Ruby’s fiddle-playing father, gives a warm and cheerful portrayal. Kathy Baker as Sally, Ada and Ruby’s neighbour, is an equally warm presence.
Jude Law as Inman gives a potent and deeply emblematic performance as the Everyman caught up in the consequences of a war he no longer believes in, and who changes utterly on his journey.
The music, both that played by Stobrod and his two musician companions, (Ethan Suplee as the simpleton Spangle, and Jack White as the solid Georgia) and the incidental and background music composed by Gabriel Yared, is as essential an ingredient of the whole 19th century flavour of this production as the acting or the stupendous, raw scenery. The movie was shot largely in the Transylvanian Alps of Romania, where the rural landscape matches what North Carolina would have looked like in the 19th century, as well as in historical parts of Charlestown and regions. The cinematography of Director of Photography John Seale is unobtrusively excellent, especially in the richness of the colours.
The next to last scene, shot in the snow, the air full of the black wings of crows, and fulfilling a prophetic vision Ada had years before concerning Inman, is a powerful culmination of this superb film. The very last scene is appropriately about family and healing relationships, both for the people and the land so laid waste by war. --Avril Carruthers