Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Hot War Story, a Cold Love Story

"All this while I've been packing ice around my heart. How will I make it melt?"

Nicole Kidman

"Cold Mountain," the Civil War drama that premiered 10 years ago today, is the kind of movie that can be frustrating.

It tries to tell a couple of stories at once. That's fine with me. I guess I was a weird kid. While most of my peers seemed to hate reading and went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to avoid it, I was the kind of kid who liked to read so much that I gravitated to lengthy books. My logic, I suppose, was that the longer the book, the more there was to enjoy.

As a teenager, I was reading books by James Michener, who was not only wordy but also tended to weave several stories into one. When it is done well, I have found it to be a rewarding reading experience. Consequently, the more the better. Same thing goes for movie plots, I guess.

But you can run into trouble trying to tell two stories at once.

As a war story, "Cold Mountain" did a good job of portraying the brutality and cruelty of war within the context of its times (as "Saving Private Ryan" did with World War II). The problem, though, is that director Anthony Minghella's movie also wanted to be a romance, and that is a tricky assignment.

It isn't impossible to achieve. It just requires a rather delicate balancing act. It was sufficiently thoughtful in its handling of war and the suffering it brought to not only the soldiers but the civilians as well.

But I didn't feel that it worked as a love story, mainly because the leads (Nicole Kidman and Jude Law) didn't really seem to have much genuine affection for each other. And that really was too bad because, above all else, I think, "Cold Mountain" was meant to be a love story. But it was aptly named because, all evidence to the contrary, Kidman and Law just didn't have much mutual chemistry.

At one point, for example, Law deserted during the war and made a beeline for home. Was he driven by a burning, insatiable desire to be with Kidman? Not so you could tell.

Near the end of the movie, Law spoke to Kidman of his desire to be with her, but the words were flat without any tangible evidence of his love for her. All the audience got was a few voiceovers by Kidman reciting the letters she sent to him. Law's character never spoke of wishing to be with Kidman, and audiences never heard his thoughts so who was to know what went through his mind?

It was only when he spoke of those thoughts near the end of the movie that viewers got a glimpse into his motivation. Even Kidman seemed bewildered. "We barely knew each other," she said.

I liked Renee Zellweger's performance as the earthy Ruby who helps Kidman's Ada run her farm, and I liked what Dana Rowader wrote about it for Zellweger's performance, Rowader wrote, "may be considered by some as hamming it up or chewing the scenery; however, her character injects life into the film where it would otherwise have fallen horribly flat."

I'm not sure I agree with the notion that the movie "would ... have fallen horribly flat." I suppose that is a matter of opinion.

Apparently, the Oscar voters liked Zellweger's performance, though. They rewarded it with the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.

Rowader suggests, though, that performances by Zellweger and others "upstage the two leads." And I'm willing to concede there may be something to that.

There really is no question that the supporting cast had a lot of interesting characters (and intriguing choices to play them).

There was Donald Sutherland as Kidman's minister father, a generally wise and upstanding man — and, on the flip side of the religious coin, there was Philip Seymour Hoffman as an amoral preacher.

There was Natalie Portman as the war widow forced to raise a child on her own who sought comfort in the arms of a stranger (Law, trying to get home).

Portman's performance may have been the best of the bunch, even in what was a relatively small role. The audience didn't need to know the details of her suffering. They could see it in her face, in her eyes, and they could hear it in her voice.

They saw an example of her suffering when Union soldiers seeking food occupied her dwelling, tied her to a post outside and left her crying infant on the cold ground. It occurred to me as I watched that Portman's character must have thought she was cursed.

Perhaps she did.

Based on what I know of the Civil War, it seems to me that anyone who survived it must have thought he/she was cursed. As far as I could see, there really were no winners in a conflict that claimed so much blood and so much property.

As I say, as a war story, "Cold Mountain" was a strong statement.

But, as a love story, I have to admit that it left me cold.