Cold Mountain (2003)

Directed by Anthony Minghella

While you can say Cold Mountain is a love story set during the American Civil War and be correct, you will be saying very little of substance about the movie.

I think it would be more accurate to say it’s a meditation on the nature and qualities of love, one that looks at what its presence does and it’s absence.

You might expect to find some jarring elements that sit poorly together when you consider that in some ways it’s an adventure movie, set as it is during wartime.

The words love and meditation suggest something softer, slower and more sedate than words like adventure and war imply. One of the triumphs of Cold Mountain is these contradictory notions not only sit well together but inform and enhance each other.

Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law).

Warning – spoiler below

Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) comes to Cold Mountain with her father, a preacher (Donald Sutherland). In contrast to many in this new place, she’s cultured and educated.

However, she has been brought up to decorate parlors and other social settings. She has no practical skills suited to this new environment.

On Cold Mountain, she meets Inman (Jude Law), a taciturn young man with a strong sense of his own honour, dignity and obligations. On the surface, Inman and Ada appear to be opposites – he’s a rural working man, she’s an urban flower. Yet they connect on what appears to be some moral, ethical level.

Nicole Kidman as Ada Monroe.

Within the constraints of social proprieties of the time, where everything is said or implied obliquely, love develops between them.

Then the war comes.

Like all the other young men of Cold Mountain, Inman goes off to fight with the Confederate army and now Ada and Inman’s story begins in earnest. Inman experiences all the horrors and hatred of war while Ada experiences it from the perspective of a woman who remains at home, waiting.

Soon, her father dies and Ada is alone. The economics of war leave her impoverished and she has no skills to survive in these new conditions. She experiences the indignities of having to live off the charity of others.

Ada and Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger).

But she does get some relief in the character of Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a young, rural woman who arrives willing to work for food and board.

Ruby teaches Ada necessary skills while also helping to support and develop Ada’s character.

Together, they become a powerful team. (This is a nice contrast to Inman’s experience of war where, while in an army which, by definition, is a group working together, he finds to survive he must depend on himself.)

The thing that sustains both Ada and Inman through the nightmare of war is their love.

Inman amid the reality of the Civil War.

The movie becomes a quest – Inman’s return to Cold Mountain and Ada, and her quest as she remains waiting for his return.

While Ada and Inman are one story, they also have their individual stories and in some ways these go in different directions because the movie is not restricted to viewing love only from the perspective of their romance.

There is the love of friends seen between Ada and Ruby. The familial (and rocky) love between Ruby and her father, as well as Ada and her father. And there is the love between Maddy and her husband. In every case, the love story is one of redemption.

Contrasting this is Inman’s experience of war: violence, self-interest and hate. There is the chaos of men raging in battle. There is also the corrupt, hateful family he encounters along the way.

In the absence of genuine love, the results are violence and destruction.

The war teaches Ada new skills like using a gun.

In the end, the hate he has encountered through war even destroys him although he’s redeemed somewhat at the end through his reuniting with Ada and the fathering of new life.

Cold Mountain is not only a wonderful film of substance, it’s also beautifully shot, performed and directed. There is a slickness to it that may at first suggest a Hollywood sheen, but I think it’s deliberate because the movie isn’t going for realism (though there is some of that).

Essentially, this is a fable (and like all fables, a moral one). I think the look is intended to suggest this more than a realistic portrayal of war. For example, there are some battle scenes that are choreographed to suggest deliberate images of war rather than the realism of a Saving Private Ryan.


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