A journey worthy of Ulysses

Published February 1, 2004

Cold Mountain is a small story set against a huge backdrop of events and the nurturing sweep of landscape and nature. At the outset of the American Civil War, Ada Monroe moves to the isolated town of Cold Mountain in North Carolina, where she meets the shy and silent Inman, the hero of the book. Though they only meet rarely and exchange few words, an unbreakable bond is forged. When Inman is called up, they exchange photographs and Ada gives Inman a travel book based on the natural world of the Appalachian mountains. With the men away at war, the dynamics of the community change. Ada takes over the running of her family farm, unsuccessfully until she is joined by Ruby. Together Ada and Ruby develop the farm, make use of the land, fend off the predators, both human and animal, while they wait for Inman’s return from the war. After being seriously wounded, Inman deserts and starts a journey back to Cold Mountain, a journey of a thousand miles heeding Ada ‘s call, “Come back to me.” Inman, who has been almost destroyed by his experience of war, is revived, renewed by his close experience of the healing power of nature.

[pullquote] The story recalls the saga of Ulysses, who faces many challenges in his struggle to return to his faithful spouse Penelope. Like Ulysses, Inman takes on the challenges placed in his path by nature in addition to many characters who bar his way or ease him along on his journey. Ada fends off the evil characters who want her and her farm for themselves. She nurtures the land, protecting her birthright, which she can share with Inman on his return. The book is rich in narrative about the enduring, sustaining relation between humans and the natural environment, which surrounds them and supports them.

It is in intimacy that the film takes its chances, risks failures, and yet often succeeds. The film achieves moments of greatness in the haunted look on Inman’s face as he looks at what the war has done to him and to his world. The rich narrative of the book is communicated through many fine cameo roles by Kathy Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins and Giovanni Ribisi, each one of which is briefly and vividly yet leaves a lasting impression on the characters in the film and on the viewer.

If there is a criticism to make of the film, Nicole Kidman is miscast as Ada Monroe and not helped by the script and the director. She does some very fine acting at the beginning of the film, establishing herself as the beautiful, strong-minded heroine. However, her role falls to pieces as soon as he leaves for war. The icon-like role of Ada is reduced to an exploration of Ralph Lauren country or a more pedestrian “gal pal” picture. Ms. Kidman’s problem is that her part in the picture is taken from her as soon as Renee Zellweger appears on the scene in a barn burning, over-the-top performance as Ruby. Though many might question the wisdom of her performance, I was very taken by the strength and vitality, which often challenges the almost perfect balance of the movie. Ms. Kidman is reduced to a rather simpering dependent role as Ms. Zellweger strides across the screen taking the farm and the film into her two hands.

This imbalance between the two female leads is noteworthy in the otherwise perfectly balanced, thoughtful, caring work of director Anthony Minghella, who also wrote the screenplay. The film also features an exceptional soundtrack of bluegrass mountain music and some spellbinding Sacred Harp communal hymn singing.

Andrew Ignatieff is director of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.


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