One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Free State Of Jones looks back on the Civil War (no, not that one), so we look back on earlier Civil War movies.
The late Anthony Minghella only made a handful of movies before he died suddenly in 2008 at age 54, but for the better part of a decade—with 1996’s The English Patient, 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and 2003’s Cold Mountain—he mastered the kind of sophisticated big-budget prestige picture that even the middlebrow-averse could appreciate. Today, Cold Mountain gets talked about less than the other two, and much less than Minghella’s modest 1990 supernatural romance Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is generally regarded as his best work. But the big-screen adaptation of Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning bestseller isn’t just some stiff piece of Oscar bait. It’s a thoughtful and poetic film that finds harmonic resonances across history.
To some extent, Cold Mountain is hampered by its setting, and its gimmick. The story mostly takes place in Confederate North Carolina during the Civil War, which is a tough time and location to put onto film without raising all kinds of questions about who should be the heroes. Minghella follows the lead of Frazier’s book in calling back to Homer’s The Odyssey, following an exhausted soldier who treks home to the lover he left behind—and who sometimes awkwardly stumbles into adventures that mirror Odysseus’.
It helps, though, that the soldier, W.P. Inman, is played by someone as charismatic as Jude Law, and that his best girl, Ada Monroe, is played by an especially regal Nicole Kidman. Minghella and his editor Walter Murch cut back and forth between Inman’s long walk and Ada’s struggles to keep her family farm going, with cinematographer John Seale’s hazy, faded images and Gabriel Yared’s stirring score helping to frame the saga elegantly. Cold Mountain really picks up steam when the guest stars start arriving: an Oscar-winning Renée Zellweger as a tomboy farmhand, a hilariously loquacious Philip Seymour Hoffman as an immoral preacher, Ray Winstone as the leader of the sinister “home guard,” Natalie Portman as a terrified young widowed mother, and more.
Throughout Cold Mountain, Minghella boldly uses Frazier’s book and American history to ponder one of his reoccurring themes: Who belongs with whom, and why? Minghella’s films often suggest that romantic love transcends other loyalties and obligations—which would make it a moral imperative for someone like Inman to go AWOL. But as the protagonist trudges through bad weather and difficult terrain, he keeps meeting people who have their own ideas about where he should be allied. Picking a side and sticking with it would be the easiest choice for Minghella’s heroes, but his movies were so much more sophisticated than their competition because of how he was drawn to men and women who follow their hearts, even at the risk of treason.
Availability: Cold Mountain is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store or library. It can also be rented or purchased from the various digital services.