LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLER

Director Anthony Minghella's strong effort pales, if slightly, against the novel

RICK GROEN

COLD MOUNTAIN

Directed and written by Anthony Minghella
Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

All the signs pointed to a major movie achievement. The source was impeccable: Charles Frazier's superb novel, a chronicle of the American Civil War that borrowed its structure from Homer but its sensibility from Wilfred Owen. Inspired too was the choice of director: Anthony Minghella, who proved in The English Patient that he could bring illuminating life to a literate book without losing its essential pulse. With his principal colleagues from that picture reassembled here -- cinematographer John Seale and editor Walter Murch -- and with an ensemble cast of stars who can act and actors who should be stars, surely the signs were infallible. Surely Cold Mountain would burn with the white heat of art.

And it does -- sometimes, and dazzlingly so. But the dazzle doesn't add up to the sustained act of brilliance I'd been expecting. For all its many strengths, the picture ultimately feels like a mild -- and I emphasize mild -- disappointment. Maybe my lofty expectations were unfair. Or maybe (this is a chronic danger) I couldn't prevent my love for the book from clouding my judgment of the adaptation. Whatever their cause, my problems with the film lingered in that most frustrating of proportions -- too slight to be totally damaging yet too nagging to be wholly dismissed.

Certainly, there's nothing wrong with the opening. All epic narratives begin in the action-packed middle of things, and this is no exception -- it starts with a literal bang. The year is 1864, the battle at Petersburg, with the Northern army laying a massive dynamite charge beneath the entrenched line of Confederate troops. Terrifying in its devastation, the explosion gives way to a rising mushroom cloud that portends the modern horrors to come. The blast tears a giant crater into the earth, and, down that blackened pit, humankind turns on itself -- the slaughter is primal and appalling. Minghella shoots the depravity in unflinching close-up, but chooses to score the sequence with the anthemic strains of an authentic period hymn. The effect is gripping, and sets the tone -- a conflation of the epic and the intimate -- that dominates the entire picture.

It's an extraordinary beginning, punctuated when an Everyman named Inman (Jude Law) crawls out from under the hellish rubble, the first of his several resurrections. As he does, a love story similarly emerges from the depths of the war story. Flashback three years to the North Carolina hamlet of Cold Mountain, where Inman first meets Ada (Nicole Kidman). A product of the town, he's a man of few words; the daughter of a reverend, she's a woman who loves words. Yet, these opposites attract instantly, and Seale makes it easy to see why.

Magnified through his lens, Kidman's beauty is luminous in these establishing scenes -- she's a near-angelic presence gracing the thankful Inman with her divine favours. Actually, just with a kiss, a single kiss that seals their love even as fate intervenes. War erupts, taking him away, robbing Inman of his goodness and Ada of her innocence; he must learn to kill and she to survive.

Initially, then, Minghella alternates between the awful present and the idyllic past, until the two catch up to each other. Watch for an early but significant example of this interweaving, when he cuts dramatically from the red blood oozing out of a fallen soldier at Petersburg to a white dove fluttering above a pristine church in Cold Mountain. How you react to that tableau may determine how you feel about the whole film: Is the sharp contrast moving in its intensity, or is there a contaminating element that feels contrived, a bit forced and mechanical?

So the pattern is set -- the intimate bleeding into the epic, love into war, the past into the present -- and continues through the remaining two-hours plus. Sickened by the stench of his decayed ideals, Inman deserts, and thereby becomes a target for both sides, trapped between the rock of the advancing Federalists and the hard place of the patrolling Home Guard. He and his homeward odyssey give the picture its Homeric structure, an episodic story filled with bizarre misadventures.

In the book, these surreal episodes are grounded in the textured realism of Frazier's prose, and build beautifully to the climax. But the movie robs them of that detailed grounding, and they vary in their power to draw us in. Some, like the sirens chapter, seem vague and hurried. Others, like his sojourn with a goat-herding crone and later with a widowed young mother, are pointed and riveting and neatly enhance one of the film's prevailing themes -- the ritualistic dance of death, so natural in days of peace and so abhorrent in times of war. The crone and the widow are contrasting partners in that dance. To feed herself, the crone slaughters her beloved goats with the knife of kindness; to save herself, the widow shoots her brutish assailants with the gun of hatred. Each is a killing done in the name of self-preservation, but enacted from very different places in the heart.

Meanwhile, survival has become no less arduous back on the home front. There, the cerebral Ada meets her earthy counterpart in the bedraggled shape of Ruby (Renee Zellweger), a local woman who grew up poor and fast and shrewd. They teach each other the tools of their separate trades -- the lady learns to use a hoe, the peasant how to read a book. Ada hardens, Ruby softens, and, both altered, they wait like twin-Penelopes for their man to return and love to re-bloom.

Obviously, a plot so episodic allows for a host of cameo performers, and the many stalwart supporters are both fun to spot and a treat to watch. Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Eileen Atkins, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (as Ruby's fiddle-playing daddy -- more authentic music) -- all make memorable contributions in limited screen time.

Of the principals, Law handles the southern accent as most Brits do -- with ease and aplomb. More importantly, unaided by much dialogue, he uses his eyes to capture the interior passages of the novel -- Inman's inner war between his triumphant will and his blighted spirit. Recently miscast in The Human Stain, Kidman is much better here, although that initial luminosity shines a tad too brightly through the latter stages of her struggle. Ironically, it's the American who's the weakest link in the performing chain: Zellweger's take on Ruby is mannered and calculated, a classic instance of upper-case Acting in a lower-caste role.

Still, I don't mean to undersell the movie's considerable strengths, with Minghella's intelligent direction chief among them. He's read the source material with care and done it justice. How much justice might be measured by the final litmus test: the climax, that moment when the journey's long circle gets completed. Everything has been building to this crucial point. If you haven't read the book, you'll probably respond with shock and heartfelt astonishment. If you have, then, like me, you may have to deal with those lingering reservations. But they'll definitely be a small part of a broader appreciation: Cold Mountain has the courage to let the air out of the South's epic balloon; it's not afraid to bring Gone with the Wind down from its melodramatic perch and onto the flinty soil of love's enriching hardships and of war's impoverishing waste. That's the movie's grand odyssey, and if it falls short of perfect accomplishment, what noble mission doesn't?


© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.