Some stories will always resonate with the soul. Set against a backdrop of the Civil War, Cold Mountain (2003) is a powerfully touching tale of a war-torn country and the effects war has on a microcosm – in this case, the love of two people who have barely begun their lives together before being swept apart by the universe. Written and directed for the screen by Anthony Minghella, the film adaptation is based on the novel by Charles Frazier and won an Oscar for Renee Zellweger for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.“I think now on the fleeting moments between us and wish I could repair them – my awkward nature, the things left unsaid…”
These are among the first words we hear in the film, and it sets the tone and focus for the rest of the movie – one of longing for a love lost to circumstance. The film truly opens on the battle of Petersburg, inundating the audience with the brutality of war, and of countryman against countryman. We meet our male lead, W.P. Inman – but “people call me Inman” -, played by Jude Law. His quiet demeanor and shy smile are evident immediately, as he shows concern for a young boy from Cold Mountain that he says can’t be old enough to fight. He seems a spot of calm in a riled world, as he reads from a letter penned by Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), his fleeting yet enduring love. The letter is full of sorrow and regret, and he has read it many times. How he treasures it is evident in the way he carries it reverently with her tin-type everywhere he goes. He is certainly a man in love, a man in a bad situation, a man wishing for home.
We are then taken back to witness their meet-cute, at a barn raising where Ada’s neighbor hints she might help her get her field cleared if she’d just speak to Inman. Ada meets Inman for the first time over a tray of fresh cider, and asks if he can accomplish such a task. He then knows how she came to be talking to him, and agrees quite confidently that yes, he can clear a field. She asks what it was specifically that he wanted to say, but it turns out that apparently it is simply hearing her voice and looking upon her face that he wanted. He happily pays the price and the field is cleared post-haste. Their hearts are set in motion.
“Look at the sky now. What color is it? Or the way a hawk flies, or you wake up and your ribs are bruised from thinking so hard on somebody. What do you call that?”
The flashbacks continue to mingle with visions of Inman’s time on the front lines, until merging and catching up with “present” time. The stark contrast between the buddings of true love and the bloody nightmare of the Civil War make the loss of one for the other ever more obvious and horrifying. As the viewer falls into the spell woven by the two lovers, anxiety for the safe return of he to she becomes a constant in the viewer’s mind. When Ada looks into the neighbor’s well for hope, the viewer’s eye is drawn to that mirror as well, riveted, hoping for any sign of Inman, of something positive coming back to her. The story gets one invested, and holds on tight.
The depth of character in each of the story’s participants makes for a tale you don’t want to look away from for a moment. Chock full of cameos, you may not at first recognize the popular star that is now dressed down and made to look appropriately rough for their war-time personage. Natalie Portman is featured for a short time, a single mother alone in the world, waiting for her husband to come home. Jena Malone makes an appearance as a ferry worker, but is not on-screen for long or portrayed in the best light. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is also a brief but bright light on the screen, playing a clergyman with a taste for women who has fallen from grace when Inman meets him. Also keep an eye open for Lucas Black, Charlie Hunnam (perhaps his first “American” movie appearance), Jack White, Giovanni Ribisi, and Brendan Gleeson, to name just a few. Each plays a solid and indelible character without which the story would be lesser, whether for good or ill. Add to this a haunting soundtrack and a beautiful setting, albeit in war time, and this film is a sure bet.
Ada Monroe, as mentioned before, is the female lead, played by Nicole Kidman. She is the daughter of a Charleston preacher, who brings her to the small town of Cold Mountain, where the story begins and ends. Her father is played by the dapper Donald Sutherland, without a speck of the ominous countenance from some of his less genial roles (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Ada has been raised a true lady, and she knows nothing of life on a farm or in the mountains. Left to fend for herself on a farm she cannot manage, during a time of war and societal upheaval, Ada begins to fail and lose hope. Her neighbors are worried for her but cannot force their help on her, nor afford to support her entirely.
Enter Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), a rough but capable mountain woman who has been directed Ada’s way by the townsfolk. She comes into Ada’s life and shows her the ropes of farm living, and how to manage the things that Ada did not know a woman could do. At one point, while being quizzed on all that she has learned from Ruby or should already know, Ada breaks down, telling Ruby, “I can’t, I can’t, alright! I can talk about farming in Latin, I can..I can read French. I know how to lace up a corset, God knows. I can name the principle rivers in Europe, just don’t ask me to name one stream in this county! I can embroider, but I can’t darn. I can arrange cut flowers but I can’t grow them! If a thing has a function, if I might do something with it, then it wasn’t considered ‘suitable’!…This fence is the first thing that I’ve ever done that might produce an actual result.”
While Ruby seems to be made of a substance tough as nails, we get to see the softer side of her and her own personal demons, as a long-lost family member returns and brings with him a motley crew, and love for Ruby. Ada and Ruby endure many tough times and hold each other up through them all. The two women become inseparable friends, and sometimes that’s all a girl can hope for in this life. Anyone who has ever had a best girl friend knows what I mean – when one look can speak volumes and you know her heart as well as you know your own.
Let’s speak of Inman a little more. He is the man seen in the well, the man who wants to come home, the man who holds on to one woman and refuses to let go, regardless of the distance and events and time that have separated them. He is the man who stays strong and kind through his trials, who stays honorable when the world around him has fallen into disgrace. He is befriended by a forest-dwelling kindred, and he becomes the protector of Natalie Portman’s lonely and desperate character when she needs one most, with nothing asked or expected of her. He does not take the Malone’s ferry girl’s offer. He abides by the laws of man and heart. Among a world of ordinary, base men, Inman is not that kind. He is not like other men. When Ada has begun to lost hope, Inman is still carrying a torch for her – in the form of a tin-type he carries with her letters in a book that he keeps with him through the war. Ada delivers this to him on the day he leaves, and he is awestruck by the image. His face speaks volumes, but his tongue is tied.
“I’m not smiling in it. I don’t know how to do that – hold a smile.”
Inman finds himself in a hospital with a throat wound, and one of Ada’s letters finally finds its way to him. He has been crying out for Cold Mountain, and so, perhaps, a piece of it is delivered to him. Ada implores him to return, and it is the same supplication that every heart that has ever longed for a love to return to it says, a million times over, in its deepest depths: “Since you left, time has been measured out in bitter chapters…and no word from you. Are you alive?…I’m still waiting, as I promised I would, but I find myself alone and at the end of my wits…So now I say to you, plain as I can – if you are fighting, stop fighting. If you are marching, stop marching. Come back to me. Come back to me is my request.”He hears her, and he does his best to go home. That is another war of its own, that you have to watch for yourself. “It’s having a thing and then the loss of it I’m talking about.”
There is so much more to say about this movie. Along with the romance and sorrow, there is comedy and joy threaded through the story that cannot be discredited or dismissed as integral to the tale. I don’t believe one review can encompass it all. If you are in the mood for a true soul-searching romance, this is the ticket. If you are looking for adventure you have also found a good bet in this. Few movies are able to make one feel the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow, and all the stages in between, so clearly, so achingly, or so vividly. I hope to never have a day where I can watch this movie and not be moved to tears.
Rev. Monroe: Do you worry when there’s no word from him, from Mr. Inman?
Ada: Yes. But then I’ve tried counting the number of words which have passed between Mr. Inman and me – not very many, but I think about him Daddy, all the time.
Rev. Monroe: I lost your mother after 22 months of marriage. It was enough to fill a life.