Cold Mountain’s Aching Love Story-Literary, Well-Acted, Meandering

Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain , from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Charles Frazier, winds down as a film of many excellences undermined by a flawed narrative. Indeed, the split focus on wildly and widely separated lovers makes Cold Mountain seem much longer at 155 minutes than Gone with the Wind did at 222 minutes back in 1939. From the first shot of Vivien Leigh’s gleaming green eyes, captured for the first time in Technicolor, to the concluding Max Steiner crescendo on her return to Tara, GWTW single-mindedly follows Ms. Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara through her experiences in Tara and Atlanta before, during and after the Civil War. There is no nonsense about following Ashley Wilkes to the various battlefields, nor fixating on Rhett Butler’s disreputable assignations.

By contrast, Cold Mountain leads the narration down a bloody garden path. At the outset, we witness the prolonged spectacle, à la Saving Private Ryan (1998), of the sickeningly explosive battle of the Petersburg Crater in Virginia in July of 1864. After more than adequately demonstrating that war is hell-flying bodies and severed limbs emphasize the point-the film flashes back to the antebellum Cold Mountain, N.C.

Jude Law’s Inman, already glimpsed in the Petersburg trenches as his Confederate comrades are blown to bits, is shown working in more pastoral surroundings, building the church when the eventual love of his life, Nicole Kidman’s Ada Monroe, arrives in town on a horse-drawn buggy with her minister father, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland). Ada and Inman exchange less-than-smoldering glances, albeit at a great distance. An unusually restrained romance unfolds-until, that is, the day Inman is about to leave to fight the Yankees and the two lovers embrace with an unexpectedly passionate this-is-for-always kiss. This and a period tin-type of his beloved are all that Inman can carry into the years of blood and gore to sustain his ardor. As it turns out, most of Inman’s screen time is that of an increasingly desperate deserter obsessed with returning to his love in Cold Mountain.

Meanwhile-and there are more than a few meanwhiles in this story-the hitherto sheltered Ada is forced to deal with the sudden death of her father, and the almost magical liberation and disappearance of her black slaves, which leaves her farm in a perilous state of neglect and disrepair until Renée Zellweger’s feisty, sassy Ruby Thewes storms onto Ada’s farm seeking work as an all-purpose laborer, thus giving the film and the farm a needed jolt of energy to shake up Ada’s delicate and Chekhovian refinement.

In this very literary adaptation of an already purplish novel, Inman evolves into an Odyssean wanderer as he confronts one life-threatening challenge after another. Along the way, he meets a series of bizarre eccentrics and outcasts, both benign and malignant. This picaresque format gives the film an episodic quality, intensified by the alternation of Inman’s travails with scenes of Ada’s Penelope-like courtship ordeal with Teague, Ray Winstone’s brutal ex-landowner who is using the war as a cover for his private depredations as a uniformed hunter of deserters.

Each of the episodes (or digressions, if you will) at both ends of the quest introduces a superlative new scene-stealing acting talent or two, albeit at the expense of the narrative flow. Especially memorable is the sublime Eileen Atkins as Maddy, a hardscrabble Samaritan who makes slitting a goat’s throat for food seem like an act of infinite mercy, and also Natalie Portman as a fearless but defenseless mother striving to save her baby’s life, even as she is being sexually menaced by marauders. Among the other players are Philip Seymour Hoffman as the defrocked and adulterous Reverend Veasey; Brendan Gleeson as Ruby’s errant troubadour father, Stobrod Thewes, whom Ruby has never forgiven for abandoning his family; and Kathy Baker as Sally Swanger, who is rescued by Ada and Ruby after her husband and children have been slaughtered by Teague and his wild bunch. The film should end with the Wild West gunfight in which Inman saves Ada and Ruby from Teague’s ruffians. But it goes on to a flowery coda that somehow dilutes the harsh realism of much that has preceded it.

Inman and Ada do come together briefly, but it’s precisely at this point that Mr. Minghella loses his footing as a storyteller, though he directs magnificently a villain’s last line, “My big advantage is that I have the confidence of youth”-a poignantly hubristic piece of dialogue worthy of William Shakespeare’s Hotspur in Henry IV .

I liked the entire cast of Cold Mountain , and I’ve been amused by some of the attacks on the performances of Ms. Kidman and Ms. Zellweger as reasons rather than excuses not to like the film. It is always open season on period movies for hunters of realism and authenticity, and beautiful women are always the allegedly anachronistic targets.

As for the much-publicized Jude Law, he gives an admirably disciplined performance, but he never quite erupts with big-star charisma. I suspect that he’s been penalized, as have Ms. Kidman and Ms. Zellweger, by the excessive fragmentation of the narrative, which prevents any of the lead characters from building up a dramatic head of steam. Mr. Minghella, like many of his contemporaries, has become too ostentatiously complex for his own good.

And as for the hellishness of war, nothing in Cold Mountain matches up to GWTW ‘s overhead traveling shot of the wounded in Atlanta, the horror of which remains anchored in the narrative by Scarlett’s uninterrupted but still visually dwindling mission to find a doctor to deliver Melanie’s baby. Even for its own time, Gone with the Wind has many more faults than Cold Mountain . Certainly, the acting was more uneven, but somehow its vulgar grandeur transcends even its grandiosity and makes it a thing of piercing beauty.

Monster Mash

Patty Jenkins’ Monster , from her own screenplay, has been justly hailed for Charlize Theron’s uncanny incarnation of Aileen Wuornos, allegedly the nation’s first woman serial killer, give or take a few mass poisoners along the way. The real-life Wuornos was arrested at a bar in Port Orange, Fla., in January 1991 on a concealed-weapons charge, and was subsequently charged with six murders. She was convicted and eventually executed in October 2002, after over 10 years on death row. Monster tells only part of the Wuornos story, ending as it does in the middle of the trial. If you want to know more about all the furor surrounding the trial, the appeals and the execution, you would be well advised to consult two documentaries on Wuornos. The first, by Nick Broomfield, shot in 1992, was entitled Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and dealt with a possibly unethical and unlawful conspiracy of Florida lawmen with Aileen’s disloyal lesbian girlfriend, Tyria Moore, to package a Hollywood movie deal on the murders even before Wuornos had been found guilty.

The second documentary, which opens in New York on Jan. 9, was made by Joan Churchill and Mr. Broomfield and shot in the period up to and after the execution. It’s entitled Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer . Mr. Broomfield, Ms. Churchill and Wuornos herself fully cooperated with Ms. Jenkins in bringing Monster to the screen with as much fidelity to the known facts as possible. And Ms. Theron was granted full access to Aileen’s private letters in creating her characterization.

The result is nothing short of staggering. Ms. Theron has ventured far beyond mere surface impersonation-although that is startling enough-to an insightful penetration of her subject’s psyche. Yet it is far from clear if Ms. Jenkins has resolved all the doubts and ambiguities of the case, particularly in the last stages of Wuornos’ deranged paranoia. In the second documentary, Wuornos seems to be dismissed, even by her defenders, as delusional. She denies that she ever acted in self-defense (or in response to male brutality) in committing her seven murders-yet in her original trial, she testified to these as mitigating factors in her actions.

Ms. Theron’s portrayal of Wuornos never provides even a hint of eventual breakdown-which may be just as well for the movie, which now stands on its own, quite movingly, as a lucid character study of a young woman starved all her life of love and affection. She briefly finds it in another emotionally deprived young woman like herself, the Selby of wide-eyed Christina Ricci. Interestingly, Ms. Ricci’s Selby bears no resemblance to Wuornos’ real-life paramour and betrayer, Tyria Moore, who in the Broomfield-Churchill film is shown to have the same puffy blond features as Wuornos. The small, dark-haired Ms. Ricci was clearly cast for purposes of visual contrast as well as acting ability. And the casting works beautifully-not only in the chemistry between Ms. Theron and Ms. Ricci, but in the heartfelt anguish of their parting. My only reservation about Monster as a movie is my old Aristotelian bugaboo: The dramatic arc starts somewhat higher on the moral scale than that of a serial killer, making Wuornos someone more to be pitied than scorned. Still, don’t miss either Monster or Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Re-Viewing Algiers

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) was justifiably hailed in its time for its stirring recreation of the Algerian struggle for independence. It was particularly praised for the revelatory performance of Jean Martin as the straight-talking French commander whose comments about fighting terrorism seems to have struck a chord with our current Pentagon administration. I recall seeing the film back in the 60’s at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, when the movie’s depiction of a terrorist bomb being detonated in a café full of French civilian men, women and children caused the entire auditorium to erupt with cheers and cries of “On to Saigon!” from the well-dressed, anti–Vietnam War assemblage. I wonder how that same scene will play now, post-9/11 and in an age of weekly suicide bombings in the Middle East.

Farewell, Mr. Bates

The first time I saw Alan Bates (1934-2003), he was sitting quietly on a Broadway stage in his underwear while Mary Ure ironed his shirt and pants, and an actor whose name I forget kept yelling at the world in the New York production of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger . I subsequently saw Bates in many striking stage and screen roles without ever meeting the man himself. Then, sometime in the 70’s, I was at some publicity gala where people around me were chattering about Norman Mailer’s cheeky article in The New York Review of Books ; Mr. Mailer was taking Marlon Brando to task for not manfully shedding his clothes as completely as his female screen companion, Maria Schneider, had done in Bernardo Bertolucci’s then-scandalous Last Tango in Paris (1972).

“What’s the fuss?” I remember pontificating at the time. “It wasn’t the end of the world when Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestled in the nude in Ken Russell’s Women in Love ” (1969)-after which I turned, and there was Alan Bates standing there, looking at me with a neutral expression. I was horribly embarrassed, especially because I deeply admired him as an actor. In that moment of awkward silence, he simply winked at me without saying a word, and all the tension magically evaporated. I have since marveled at how it always seems to be the British who detoxify these difficult situations with such graceful conciseness. Alan Bates was a great actor, but for me he was a great human being as well.

Cold Mountain’s Aching Love Story-Literary, Well-Acted, Meandering