Jude Law portrays Inman, a Civil War soldier struggling to return to his homestead and wife in Cold Mountain (courtesy photo)

A Confederate deserter makes his way back home

Medieval literature had three great themes: the Matter of Britain (the Camelot cycle), the Matter of France (Charlemagne, Roland), and the Matter of Rome (classical myth). For American epics, only one thing seems to matter: the Civil War. The rebel South rises again and again, in Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, Ken Burns' monumental Civil War, and many lesser productions. Movies about the Civil War enable Americans to revisit questions of federalism, race, and violence, and to ignore civil wars in England, Spain, Congo, and Sri Lanka.

Filmed largely in Romania, whose lovely, lush hills double for North Carolina, Cold Mountain is the latest effort at American introspection. Adapted by director Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier's ubiquitous novel, the film portrays the arduous odyssey of a Confederate deserter back to the town and woman he loves, and the hardships that that woman undergoes as she, a Dixie Penelope, awaits his return.

Although he barely knows her, Inman's memories of a few conversations and a single kiss with beautiful Ada Monroe sustain him throughout brutal combat. Gravely wounded and convalescing, he sneaks off to make his long way back to Ada. She, meanwhile, fends off a thuggish suitor named Teague (Winstone), a self-appointed leader of a local civil guard intent on executing deserters, and finds means to feed herself. Inman remains such a stranger to her that she addresses 103 letters to him with "Dear Mr. Inman," but Ada never loses faith she will see him again. Throughout its long duration, Cold Mountain crosscuts between the converging stories of Ada and Inman.

Cold Mountain
Dir. Anthony Minghella; writ. Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier; feat. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ray Winstone, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (R)
The Battle of Petersburg, staged early in the film, in extreme closeup with hand-held cameras amid pools of blood, seems designed to rival the infernal carnage during the Normandy landing early in Saving Private Ryan. Yet Cold Mountain is Hollywood melodrama, in which rugged country folk smile through perfect pearly teeth and significant moments are signaled to the viewer by layering mawkish music over sententious dialogue. The villains are too villainous, and the two main heroes, Ada and Inman, are, throughout a lengthy ordeal, reduced to a single, simple aspiration: reunion.

Union-secessionist tensions remain a distant abstraction. When war is declared, residents of Cold Mountain respond to the Southern cause without any obvious awareness of what that cause is. Righteous fervor is soon replaced by visceral revulsion. "If I had goodness," says Inman (Law), not a reflective man, "I lost it." What he and others lose is not so much goodness or even innocence as one form of naïvete, replaced by another. Many, many also lose their lives. "What we have lost will never be returned to us," concludes Ada, explaining why so many movies - and weekend warriors - attempt desperately to reenact the Civil War.

Ruby (Renée Zellweger, left) and Ada (Nicole Kidman) come together for the survival on Black Cove Farm (courtesy photo)

More interesting than the relationship between Ada and Inman is the pairing of Ada (Kidman), schooled in the genteel skills of Latin, embroidery, and piano, and Ruby (Zellweger), a spunky, practical gal who comes to help solitary Ada survive on her Black Cove Farm. The lady and the peasant form a complete couple, making Inman - and the premise of the film - almost irrelevant. Along with a neighbor named Sally (Baker) who is traumatized into muteness by the murder of her husband and two sons, the women form a matriarchal society that is an irenic alternative to the bloody chaos made by men.

Among the adversities, dangers, and temptations that Inman overcomes during his journey back to Ada, his sojourn with Sara (Portman), a lonely widow with a baby, is most memorable. On a dark, stormy night, Inman relies on the kindness of this stranger for a hot meal and a corn crib in which to lay his weary head. In the middle of the night, needy Sara asks Inman to share her bed. When three Union soldiers raid the cabin in the morning, Sara calmly kills one of them, a man no less frightened and starving than Inman was the night before. Amid the cinematic simplicities spread out in Cold Mountain, the complexities of this eloquent sequence might keep a viewer from deserting. •

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