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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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Cold Mountain

On the way home from Cold Mountain, Anthony Minghella's Civil War epic, I realized that I hadn't gotten a real good look at the eponymous peak -- the kind of establishing shot that epics are supposed to be made of. Was that it over Nicole Kidman's shoulder, that glorified molehill? In the novel the movie's based on, which won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of readers all over the country, Cold Mountain looms over every page, not unlike Moby-Dick's white whale. For Kidman's Ada, a Southern belle stranded on a subsistence farm in the far reaches of Appalachia, it represents shelter from the storms of war. For Inman (Jude Law), a Confederate deserter, it represents home, and he uses it as an emotional lodestar on his Homeric journey from the battlefields of Virginia to the cornfields and tobacco fields of North Carolina. So, why can't we get a good look at it? Was Minghella afraid that, like Inman, we'd measure it against the one in our mind's eye?

Before beginning his own journey to Cold Mountain, author Charles Frazier did a prodigious amount of research, and it paid off. The novel, overflowing with descriptive passages, envelops us in a world where everything from the shortest blade of grass to the tallest pile of rocks vibrates with meaning. Nature, which we come to associate with women, is being mauled by war, which we come to associate with men. And although Frazier's lyrical prose can sometimes form a dense undergrowth, impeding the novel's forward momentum, he's a genuine storyteller, putting Inman through a series of trials loosely modeled on The Odyssey and giving Ada an up-by-her-own-bootstraps story arc that would send Scarlett O'Hara running back to Tara. Fans of Gone With the Wind may be slightly disappointed by the love story at the heart of Cold Mountain. Inman and Ada do give a damn, but not only are they separated by hundreds of miles, they barely know each other, having only met a few times.

Translating Frazier's poetic evocations to the screen would be a challenge for anyone, but Minghella, who accepted a similar challenge with The English Patient, would seem to be the right person for the job. And he does give it the old college-theme-paper try. But the movie, despite its beautiful scenery, its beautiful faces, its beautiful thoughts, never quite gels. With The English Patient, Minghella had to add moisture to Michael Ondaatje's desert-dry novel. Here, he needed to dry things out, burn off some of that poetry. Which, to his credit, he's done, but it turns out that those descriptive passages are what hold the novel together. Without them, Cold Mountain turns into a pair of distantly related -- or should I say distance-related? -- storylines, one that's too episodic and one that may not be episodic enough. Except for some very welcome flashbacks, Inman and Ada are separated throughout Cold Mountain, a romantic notion that can sustain a novel and sink a movie.

Whenever they're on screen together, Law and Kidman generate a fair degree of heat. And their big kiss, which threatens to engulf both their faces, is immensely pleasurable, if only because it's so unexpected. Inman isn't much of a talker, as his name implies, and Law works hard to ensure he doesn't smile very much either, which makes this Inman even more of a cipher than the book's. One can easily imagine Daniel Day-Lewis in the role, to Law's detriment, but the latter manages to hold his own. As for Kidman, she's photographed so flatteringly that it throws the movie off. In the flashback scenes, Ada's supposed to be beautiful, her honey-dipped curls wrapping themselves around Inman's heart. But how does she keep bleaching her hair when she can't even afford to feed herself? And isn't that polish I detected on her fingers after she's supposed to have worked them to the bone? Such things wouldn't matter so much if the movie weren't otherwise steeped in muck and mire.

Minghella opens with the so-called Battle of the Crater, which isn't in the book but nevertheless serves nicely as an indication of how absurdly violent the Civil War could be. Union soldiers have dug a tunnel behind Confederate lines and packed it with dynamite, but the Hiroshima-like explosion leaves a hole in the ground so deep and so wide that, when the Federals charge, they're soon trapped in a grave of their own digging. And the reason we know this is because an off-screen soldier says, "They dug their own grave." Ideally, we'd be shown such things, not told, but Minghella has trouble waging a major battle, resorting to close-ups when what we long for is an overview. He also has a weakness for symbols, sending a white horse and a white dove our way. But what really hurts the movie is that he doesn't have a feel for the Blue Ridge culture that Frazier both resurrected and memorialized. A sequence in which In man is seduced by a shack full of backwoods sirens seems like a porno version of "Li'l Abner."

Most of Inman's Odyssean adventures fall wide of the mark -- too mythic by half. (Only Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a preacher man with an eye for the ladies, seems plausible, in a Mark Twain kind of way.) Meanwhile, back at Cold Mountain, Ada has teamed up with Ruby, the Annie Oakley of the deep-fried South. Together, these two will turn the farm's green acres into a matriarchal paradise, with Ada as Paris Hilton and Ruby as a combined Mammy Yokum, Ma Kettle and Granny Clampett. As Ruby, Renée Zellweger is so off the wall she's almost guaranteed an Oscar. But even those of us who resist her at first are grateful for the humor she provides. Like a certain documentary series by Ken Burns, Cold Mountain can take itself way too seriously at times, the scenes arranging themselves like the dioramas at a Civil War museum. Maybe what Minghella should have done is pitch Frazier's novel altogether, told his own story. As it is, the movie's caught betwixt and between -- arty trash.

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