Is Nicole Kidman contractually obligated to interact with birds in all her films? In Moulin Rouge, she tells a bird that she’s going to fly away. In The Hours, she whispered sweet nothings to a dead bird while lying on the ground. In The Human Stain, she had to play her best lines to a crow. And in Anthony Minghella’s latest harlequin romance, Cold Mountain, the birds are out in droves: she meets a white dove (read: peace) inside a church (take that John Woo!); she sees the future in a flight of crows (read: death); she’s repeatedly attacked by a devil-may-care rooster (read: stupid); and she kills a turkey when her character finally resigns herself to the fact that her Civil War boy toy may not be coming home. Make no mistake: Cold Mountain is just a step above V.C. Andrews, but it’s overwrought bird imagery is the least of its problems.
Piano-playing Ada (Kidman) and hurly-burly Inman (Jude Law) meet-cute in North Carolina’s Cold Mountain (he’s playing with wood, she’s carrying apple cider). When the Civil War hits, their embryonic romance is cut tragically short and they spend the duration of the war trying to reconnect. Ada stays in Cold Mountain, rebuilding her farm with the help of green-thumbed comedian Ruby Thewes (a cock-busting Renée Zellweger) and negotiating the ill-will of a clan of guerrilla policemen hellbent on punishing anyone who may be harboring deserters. One such traitor is Inman himself, who encounters an all-star cast of Oscar hopefuls on his epic Johnny Appleseed stroll between a war hospital and Cold Mountain. (Similarities between Cold Mountain and Tim Burton’s fantastical Big Fish are striking, but only the latter should be taken seriously.)
Worse than Minghella’s labored romanticism is his own disbelief in the very harlequin conundrum he orchestrates. Come nighttime, Ada reads Wuthering Heights to Ruby. The allusion is ridiculous, not because Ada and Inman can’t hold a candle to Heathcliff and Catherine, but because of Minghella’s cloying need to gauge and justify the ardor of Ada and Inman’s mini-romance (besides apple cider, they share only a stack of letters and an arduous kiss between them). The best scene in the film—an encounter between Inman and the widowed Sara (Natalie Portman)—subtextually grapples with the lament of a war that nearly separated every man from every woman. This one scene truly evokes how even an insignificant romance was enough to make any man heading to war (or any woman left behind) going strong for a lifetime.
On the road, Inman lives out a book of Bible stories that exist only to validate his goodness and ruffle his determination to get back to Cold Mountain: he saves a black woman from a constipated minister (Philip Seymour Hoffman); he helps a hillbilly (Giovanni Ribisi) with his dead cow; he refuses to fuck no less than two women (that’s love, folks!); and he saves another one from rape. Every encounter is more or less a contrived, woefully obvious attempt to address notions of Christian charity gone awry during the Civil War. Subtlety is not Minghella’s strong suit, but Cold Mountain is not without its graceful moments: an elderly hillbilly woman played by Eileen Atkins dreamily ruminates on violence; Ruby deliberately puts distance between herself and her father; and the CGI flight of crows reflected inside a well brings to mind M.C. Escher’s “Sky and Water.”
Predictably, romance dutifully trivializes race and war in Cold Mountain. Cotton-picking blacks and tattered American flags are Minghella’s window-dressing of choice. I don’t know what’s more ludicrous: the fact that a carefully laid-out explosion rips a soldier’s clothes off (yup, even his underwear, but his atlas-shrugged pose guarantees that you won’t see his dick) or that Minghella thinks he’s negotiating race issues by having a Yankee black man and Confederate Native American exchange a quickie glance on the battlefield. Oh, the humanity! Who cares about race as long as we know that Law’s Southern gent wouldn’t kill a family of scared-as-shit African-Americans for their basket of chicken eggs? In Cold Mountain, the Civil War exists only to deter Ada and Inman from power-fucking. “I’m very grateful for the pork,” says Ada. Indeed you are.