Beyond All Reckoning
The first scene in Cold Mountain is sensational and sickening, an apt introduction to a Civil War saga. As the camera reveals a company of filthy-faced, exhausted Confederate soldiers, Ada (Nicole Kidman) reads her letter to long-absent love Inman (Jude Law): “This awful war,” her voiceover lilts, imagining their eventual reunion, “will have changed us both beyond all reckoning.”
It’s July 1864, and the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia is underway (it lasted from June 1864 to April 1865). Neither the hunkered down Southern troops nor the advancing Northerners can anticipate the coming devastation (says one self-assured Southerner, “Them Yankee boys keep store hours”). And then, “Burnside’s mine,” a 586-foot tunnel dug and rigged with explosives for weeks under the Southern camp, explodes. The result is pandemonium: the Yankees’ leadership is inept (drunk and slow to react), and the Southern soldiers find their enemies trapped in the gaping hole they have blown open. “Like shooting fish in a barrel!” cries out one of Inman’s fellows, as they rush forward to kill as many opponents as possible in a frenzy of hand-to-hand combat.
The film’s version of this crater-bound carnage is impressively alarming. The tumult of flying body parts, thickening smoke, and reddening mud offers few instances where viewers might feel anything but confusion. One such concerns Inman’s comrade, a Native American, exchanging a look with a black man fighting for the North. That this is one of the film’s few references to the raced history and politics of the Civil War and its era (aside from Ada’s efforts to bring drinks on a tray to offscreen, unseen “Negroes”) is not a little troubling. As this moment evinces awareness of stakes for the nonwhite characters, it also dismisses them.
Another image is more specific to the film’s concerns: Inman struggles mightily to save a pale slip of a Johnny Reb (Lucas Black) whom he recognizes from back home in Cold Mountain, North Carolina: “You’re Mo Oakley’s boy,” he calls out, just before the detonation literally rends the ground beneath them, then wonders aloud if he’s “old enough” to be here. Of course he’s not, but then, no one could be. If the movie makes one point clearly and repeatedly, it’s that war is a terrible unmaking—of men as much as boys, of community as much as nation.
And yet: following the model of Saving Private Ryan, in which an opening scene of utter mayhem is then recuperated by a lengthy romantic narrative, Cold Mountain proceeds to lay out bits of logic and moral order. Adapted by Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel, the movie takes up an episodic structure, such that Inman’s journey home—he deserts, following his own near fatal injury, a shot to the neck—leads him from one distressing encounter to another, Odyssey-style. And so, he runs into the Reverend Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom he stops from murdering the black woman pregnant with his child (she’s unconscious at the time); an opportunistic backwoodsman (Giovanni Ribisi); a miserable widow (Natalie Portman), whose baby he saves from brutal, desperate Union soldiers; and the wise old goat-tender Maddy (Eileen Atkins), who bestows on him helpful principles.
The brevity of each of these incidents is a function of the film’s structure, but it also creates a sense of perpetual dislocation, which might coincide with the characters’, but also reflects basic problems inherent in adapting a lengthy novel. While the strategy allows for an array of “featured actors,” it also makes for a too calculated pace, as if the film is checking off scenes one by one, without clear thematic or even emotional links among them.
Just as Inman’s passage is arduous, so too is Ada’s own coming to social consciousness and survivor’s steeliness. Though she is largely confined to Black Cove farm, where she and her father, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), arrive before the War, Ada also endures calamitous change during the years leading to Inman’s return. In the relationship between Ada and Inman, the film finds its most resonant nostalgia. (He is, by the way, duly named, for his journey is—metaphorically, of course—about turning in; if only his countrymen might learn the lesson he does.) As Ada worries and longs for her man (with whom she barely exchanged 10 sentences prior to his departure), she writes letter after letter, which, in a lapse of empathy, she can’t imagine he doesn’t get, and while she hangs on for years in hope, she also believes he’s just not writing back.
Throughout, Ada looks lovely. (In fact, her ethereal effect recalls another era, as when Scarlet O’Hara sported perfect makeup, with occasional cheek smudges to indicate dire circumstances.) Her first encounter with Inman takes place just after helpful neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker), greets her arrival in Cold Mountain with sympathy, thinking this tiny rural settlement “must feel like the end of the world.” Oh no, Ada shakes her head, politely; and yet, having moved South for her father’s health, she feels simultaneously displaced and special. Initially he looks on her from a ladder while building the new church for her father’s congregation, and then again, some days later, he pauses during his field plowing to watch her ride by in a wooden wagon, playing her piano.
This moment, so dense with meaning and expectation, and yet so anomalous and bizarrely dreamy, frames the ensuing relationship as imaginary, aching, even a bit eccentric. This grants the film a lush sweepiness, which slips into an episodic illogic, allowing both Ada and Inman the opportunity to interact with numbers of other characters. While he’s recovering from his wounds in a hospital, for instance, she’s weighed down first by her father’s death, and then her inability to maintain the farm on her own. Worse, the Home Guard—men who didn’t go to War, led by the resentful Teague (Ray Winstone), who also lusts after the fair Ada, and including the snaky Bosie (Charlie Hunnman)—sets to reordering what’s left of any local “civilization.”
Fortunately for the starving Ada, she gets help from the irrepressible Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), who arrives just when Ada is feeling threatened by a rooster, stalking her like he’s got “the devil” in him. Ruby puts an end to this nonsense within minutes of her appearance, snapping the bird’s neck so as to show her grit and supply a nice dinner in one move. As Ruby brings order to the farm work (she makes lists of things to do, and gets Ada swinging axes and mucking stalls), Ada gives Ruby the gift of literature and some sort of “refinement” (or maybe just girliness) in the midst of all the wreckage. Reading to her from Wuthering Heights, Ada imagines her own romance in the same way—elaborate, passionate, and fantastically composed.
At the same time, Ruby brings her own story, or rather, it arrives on their doorstep in the form her long-lost father, a fiddler named Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson), accompanied by his fellow bandmates, Pangle (Ethan Suplee), and Georgia (Jack White, who acquits himself well as an actor playing a singer). During such moments, Cold Mountain makes good, though not enough, use of the era’s music, as it inspires community, transmits a cultural bottom line, and provides pleasure, as necessary on a battlefield as in a bar or a Christmas celebration. Though it begins with urgency and detail that makes its “epic” scope beside the point, the movie expends too much energy on grand gestures. And so it loses touch with more effective and affecting particulars.