The Civil War was easily the most perilous time in American history. People in the U.S. have heard the stories in their history class a dozen times or more “Brother fighting against brother. Father fighting against son.” Considering the death and destruction that this repulsive war left in its path, it’s not surprising in the slightest that people studying it look at it with such disdain. Despite that fact, the war left a positive mark on society in regards to finally abolishing slavery and making it clear that it was illegal to own another human being no matter what color his skin was. However, the battle of equality between the two races is still an often nasty battle that is waged to this day.
Writer/Director Anthony Minghella captures this terrifying and often dangerous time in American history beautifully in Cold Mountain, a film adapted from the novel of the same name written by Charles Frazier. The Academy Award winning director (The English Patient) does a fabulous job of capturing the obvious despair of the time in Cold Mountain, a small North Carolina farming Confederate town. He is able to do this not only in several grizzly Civil War scenes, but in the wrenching emotions that families and friends have to endure with not only having to wait several years before potentially seeing loved ones again, if ever. Even worse, people faced execution if any solider happens to make it home and is considered a deserter.
The story begins with a series of flashback and flash-forward sequences between the first several years of the Civil War and the first half of 1864 as the conflict continued to drag on. During the scenes in 1861, the viewer is first introduced to the brief, but passionate, love affair that existed between W.P. Inman (played well by Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (played expertly by Nicole Kidman). Inman is a construction worker living in a small room in town where Monroe is the educated, well-to-do daughter of a preacher (Donald Sutherland) recently moved from Charleston, SC to breathe in the fresh air and protect his weak heart.
From there, the brutality of the Civil War begins to rear its ugly head in several different ways as Inman goes off to fight the war and ends up being shot in the neck in a small ground battle with the Yankees of the North. Meanwhile, Monroe must find a way to keep herself alive and her house in tact once tragedy strikes her and after she freed the slaves that maintained the house on her estate. Sally Swanger (played by “Picket Fences'” Kathy Baker) ends up introducing a tough, rugged, hard-working woman named Ruby Thewes (played by Renee Zellweger in what truly was an Oscar worthy performance) to Monroe to aid in learning how to work and subsequently live off of the land.
Approximately, 45 minutes into the movie the various jumps from flashbacks and flash-forwards end as Minghella catches the viewer up with back story and focuses on the three primary stories starting in August, 1864: First, after a nurse reads Inman an old letter Ada sent to him asking him to come home, he abandons the Confederate effort in the Civil War. This classifies him as a deserter and he needs to avoid being caught and sent back to a war to fight a cause he no longer believes in. All of this occurs while he’s trying to get home to Cold Mountain to see his beloved Ada. From there, the viewers follow along with Inman on his journey that’s comparable to the one seen in Homer’s Odyessey. In his travels, he meets a series of vibrant, intriguing characters played by several high profile actors in small roles including Philip Seymour Hoffman as an adulterous preacher and Natalie Portman as young, strong mother left to raise the baby she had with a man who went to fight in the war.
Meanwhile, the other stories are set in Cold Mountain where local authorities start using unnecessarily violent and powerful, and almost vigilante, style of law enforcement where they murder all deserters and harbors of deserters. Also, the Director shows Ruby Thewes and Ada living in the house Ada’s father purchased, living off the land, becoming very close like family and encountering a series of characters, one of which Ruby knows very well, who are also Civil War deserters.
All three stories crash together in a final sequence that invites happiness, joy, sadness, tragedy, surprise, and, unfortunately, a little bit of predictability as well.
Despite the fairly predictable ending, that doesn’t take away from Minghella’s effort in creating a story that is visually pleasing, pretty well constructed, and filled with outstanding performances from the main cast (Kidman, Law, Zellweger) and the players with smaller roles as well (Hoffman, Portman). Not only were the potentially difficult war sequences done quite well, but the more sensitive parts involving more emotion from the actors were captured with a certain intensity that made them believable and a grace that made them real and less mechanical. In addition, Minghella does a fabulous job capturing the music of the time and picking some good arrangements to include in the movie, not only as background fodder, but as part of the storytelling as well. If you’re interested in southern music heavy on stringed instruments, then I’d recommend picking up the soundtrack as well.
If there is one drawback to Cold Mountain, it’s the fact that it carries on to about 2 Â½ hours long. As entertaining as the movie is and as interesting as the various characters are, it does feel like it’s carried on for that long until the final sequence where the primary storylines are brought to fruition and the excitement picks up significantly.
Nonetheless, great visuals, outstanding performances by the actors, good storytelling, and terrific music make Cold Mountain make a worthy movie worth checking out. While the movie is based on fictional characters, you might learn something by watching it too!
The DVD is presented in Widescreen (2.35:1) format and is enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The Widescreen format creates a movie theatre feel but is slightly distracting because it isn’t formatted for televisions. Nonetheless, I would prefer the feel of a movie theatre picture.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. It’s crisp and clear and transfers very well to the television.
** “Climbing Cold Mountain” â€” This 70-minute feature is a real meaty documentary discussing the nuts and bolts of creating the film and the potential difficulties that Writer/Director Anthony Minghella faced in working on the project. adapting the novel by Charles Frazier to the screenplay, set locations (including Romania, Virginia, and South Carolina), production design, the battle in the movie’s first sequence, the actors, rehearsals, the weather problems encountered by the production team, what it was like to film in Romania, the long 117-day shoot from July-December 2002 and the type of publicity employed by the studio. It’s interesting to see how much care Minghella and his staff took in attempting to create a historically accurate picture of life during the Civil War, not only in battle, but those people who did not take part in the war and were forced to wait in the towns in which they lived for news of events. If there is a drawback to a documentary of this nature, it’s that the storytelling of the making of Cold Mountain is too mechanical in nature and doesn’t really capture the imagination of the viewer looking to learn more about the movie making process.
** “Words & Music of Cold Mountain” â€” Hosted by one of the movie’s producers, Sydney Pollack, this unique 90-minute piece is actually a concert of sorts put together by those associated with Cold Mountain. The show includes a conversation with Writer/Director Anthony Minghella, clips of the movie, and various performances of the unique music used in the film. The Director himself said during the conversation that the purpose of a show like this is to “lift up the skirt of the process of making a movie.” They did so in two ways. First, several of the film’s lead actors (including Nicole Kidman and Jude Law) reading excerpts of the novel and other relevant readings from the time. Second, several accomplished musicians gave performances of the songs unique to the south at the time the movie takes place. The music is expertly performed by the musicians taking part in the show. In general, the show is a good view for those interested in Civil War music and culture and for more insight on how Cold Mountain was made.
** A Journey to Cold Mountain â€” This feature is a 28-minute “Making of” Cold Mountain special that utilizes a better story telling method than the documentary. With the quick cuts between short clips of the movie and interviews with many of the key players in the movie including Minghella, Kidman, Law, and Zellweger, this particular offering is more “user friendly” and doesn’t bore viewers with the nitty gritty details that people who aren’t true film buffs wouldn’t find interesting. This special features the actors’ involved and their performances, a little back story about the novel from which the movie is based, and some details about the production including the scenery (especially in Romania), the costumes, and the music unique to the time which Minghella finds very important to the way the movie was made.
** Deleted Scenes â€” The DVD features 11 deleted scenes of varying consequence. One of the more potential influential scenes include an early battle scene when a Confederate solider gets angry and kills a Union solider that was piled with the corpses but still alive while Ruby Thewes’ father is introduced sooner as he tries to pick pocket the corpses with gold teeth. In addition, another potentially pivotal alternate deleted scene was Sara (Natalie Portman) killing herself after her sick baby died. Considering the alternative, Minghella included the right scene.
** Sacred Harp History â€” This is a brief four minute clip detailing the history of the music in Cold Mountain. Again, if you’re interested in music from the southern United States in the mid-1800s, this would be an interesting feature for you.
**Storyboard Comparisons â€” Another feature for movie buffs, this piece allows people to follow along the movie using the storyboards created before the film went into production. It’s interesting to see how close the storyboards follow the finished product and how important they can be in creating a vision for the movie.
** Director’s Commentary â€” The only problem with a DVD set loaded with extras is that once the viewer gets to the director’s commentary, some of the information is bound to get repeated and that happens in this case. It isn’t completely obvious as Minghella addresses specific issues as they crop up in the movie. Nonetheless, if people study the extras, they will see the similarities in the information divulged, so it may not be a necessary watch unless you like watching the movie with people talking over it or you REALLY like Anthony Minghella.
** Sneak Peeks â€” The DVD also contains extended previews of Shall We Dance (starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, and Jennifer Lopez), The Human Stain (starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins), People I Know (starring Al Pacino, Kim Basinger, and Tea Leoni) and Hero (Produced by Quentin Tarantino and starring Jet Li).
In addition, the Sneak Peeks section contains previews for Cold Mountain, The Barbarian Invasions, the Collector’s Edition DVD for The English Patient, The Alamo, and a two-minute promotional clip celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Miramax Studios and all the fine films that the company released over the years.
Overall, the Cold Mountain special features disc is loaded with interesting, meaningful, and relevant content. Unlike many DVDs which claim to be laden with extras, this one has a tremendous amount of great substance for the supreme film connoisseur, history buff, music lover, or remotely interested consumer just looking to learn a little more about the movie and its stars. That’s certainly a great thing as it gives the consumer the idea they are getting more for their dollar. In this case, they actually are
The Film: 8.5
The Video: 8.0
The Audio: 8.5
The Special Features: 9.0
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