Marginally overlong U.S. Civil War drama, variously mushy and bloody but rather good nonetheless.
War. Huh. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, or so a neverending stream of films would have you believe. Gone are the carefree days of gloriously gunning down Russians or whichever minority is currently being blamed for a nations' woes as typified in Commando. Perhaps just as well, as the thought of John Matrix going up against an island full of single mother Arabian illegal immigrants doesn't seem too appealing. In its place are a growing number of films showing us the surely all too obvious harsh reality that War Is in fact Hell. People get killed and everything. Wow, who'd have thunk it?
Next on the agenda of Wars that we are to be reminded were In fact Hell is the American Civil war, a conflict resulting from a complicated set of economic and socio-political factors that will only be remembered as the North wanting to set free the slaves and the South refusing. Just as trite as the first World War being apparently caused purely by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but this is all largely beside the point as we join with the match already in progress. After a botched charge meets a mud wall the Northern soldiers are being picked off like fish in a barrel. The battleground quickly becomes a mess of mingled blood and mud as we are reminded that War Is Hell™. Part of this battle sees Confederate soldier Inman from the backwater town of Cold Mountain lose one of his best friends, another aspect of War Being Hell. After being commended on his bravery, the regiment of Cold Mountaineers are sent in for one operation that not only decimates the town's population but also lands Inman in hospital with a serious gunshot wound to the neck.
While he's slipping in and out of consciousness, and throughout the rest of the film we are treated to flashbacks of a gentler time three years ago, before the war began. A humble carpenter, he catches the gaze of the newly arrived minister's daughter Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). As Inman's story is unfolding so does the story of their highly restrained and largely unspectacular romance, which nevertheless is charming in it's own little way. After recuperating a little, Inman decides that this war malarkey is a fools' errand and does a midnight bunk. It's a pity that the home guard are after him, a group in many ways a precursor to Dad's Army although with less of the amusing banter and more of the shooting deserters mercilessly.
While much of the story centres on Inmans' arduous journey during which he'll encounter lecherous preachers (Philip Seymour Hoffman), bizarre honey traps (run by Giovanni Ribisi), assorted home guardsmen and a damsel in distress (Natalie Portman) being bothered by Union soldiers, just as much of it centres on Ada. After the death of her father the farm runs to rack and ruin, and she spends much of her days cowering from a rooster. Having been raised in the manner befitting a lady of her station, she may know how to speak Latin but the altogether more useful skills of ploughing and harvesting are mysteries to her. Her bacon is saved by the arrival of plain-talking practical gal Ruby Thewes (Renée 'Jesus, not her, please God no' Zellweger). With her help they manage to knock the farm into some kind of shape that will allow them to survive, although they have other matters to attend to. Captain of the home guard Teague (Ray Winstone)'s family used to own this town, and the loss of it leaves Teague with a super sized chip on his shoulder.
More problems arrive when the deserting father of Ruby, Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson) arrives on the scene with his wandering band of minstrels. This allows for Ruby to reveal her traumatic past and neglect at Stobrod's hands, and for Teague to have a little bit of fun hunting down these deserters with his band of incredibly irritating henchmen. It's a clever tale on many levels, allowing for family drama, love stories, war films and tense thrillers to be interwoven into one story albeit with the use of the ever-so-trendy non-linear narrative kludge. And dontcha know it, it works. Director Anthony Minghella manages to handle each genre with the necessary skill so that they combine near seamlessly, without the pacing problems that would seem inevitable jumping from pitched battle scenes to pitchforks as Ada works the farm. Kudos is deserved, and only tarnished by the film being about quarter of an hour too long for the actual events it contains.
Perhaps it's deliberate, as when the film reaches it's conclusion you'll be so happy that it's ended that you won't question the utterly unrealistic way that the loose ends are tied up largely by ignoring them. Can't have everything, I suppose. There's not a tremendous amount to get upset about when talking about this film, as it's very well done in all areas. It's visually varied, moving from muddy battlefields to swamps, snowy wastelands and idyllic southern towns with aplomb along to an accomplished score and bluegrass soundtrack assembled by T-Bone Burnett, also employing the services of Jack White of band of the moment The White Stripes. The only accent that really struggles slightly come from Kidman, which is unfortunate as she does much of the talking. Given some of the utterly bizarre statements that spew forth from Jude Law's mouth on the very few occasions he waxes lyrical this is an acceptable trade off.
The performances are exemplary all round, particularly some superb supporting turns from characters such as the ever dependable Hoffman. Natalie Portman looks to have the talent to shake off the usual Star Wars stereotyping, Brendan Gleeson again does such a good American accent that it's easy to forget he's not native to their lands and even Ray Winstone plays a character other than Ray Winstone for the first time in living memory. His portrayal of Teague is filled with suitable rage and menace, even managing to squeeze in a little more depth than the script would seem to afford him. Even The Horrid Zellweger is less offensive than usual. I suppose there's a slight cause for concern that much of the memorable moments come from the supporting cast rather than the leads, although that's a common enough affliction these days. Kidman is adequate as the Southern Belle but no more than that. It's not a bad turn by any means but the Oscar rumours baffle me.
Jude Law is a strange case, an obviously talented actor that's been given several chances to shine in high profile films such as A.I. and The Road To Perdition but one that's never managed to capture the public's imagination or hearts. He's produced another top drawer performance, perhaps his best since Gattaca but whether or not it fixes him in the Hollywood A-list is a question we can't answer at the moment. Let's hope so, as he deserves it far more than lunkheads like Vin Diesel.
As you can probably tell I quite likes this movie, with only two minor disappointments. It's slightly overlong for what it is, and there's a part of me that's getting sick of the new brand of war movie clichés. While the eighties would be filled with shots of serious looking men gearing up and then later firing automatic weapons in slow motion while stripped to waist, optionally screaming or bleeding, the newer, grittier breed of war flick is almost guaranteed to have the hero hiding from some hunter force under a pile of dead bodies as a reminder that this here War Is Hell™. Frankly I'm getting bored of the implication that I don't know that war is a nasty, brutish, dehumanising thing where honour is a far off concept and death is the object and often the reward. I'm beginning to think Hollywood is actively trying to insult me, as though I'm not capable of knowing this and still enjoying a mindless action flick where pretend people pretend to die and actually, y'know, being able to separate this from reality.
Still, I'm a weird and oversensitive person so feel free to ignore my ramblings and enjoy a well crafted, well acted story that has little in the way of negatives to speak of. Enjoyable for pretty much everyone I should wager, containing as it does both romance and killing in equal measure allowing men to pass it off as a suitable date movie but retain street credibility by describing it as a war flick. Sneaky. Look out also for the audiences' meek acceptance of thousands of men being slaughtered at the outset and contrast this with the shocked gasps that accompany a later scene of a goat being killed. It's a strange world we live in.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Nicole Kidman (Ada Monroe)
Renée Zellweger (Ruby Thewes)
Donald Sutherland (Reverend Monroe)
Ray Winstone (Teague)
Brendan Gleeson (Stobrod)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Veasey)
Natalie Portman (Sara)
Kathy Baker (Sally Swanger)
James Gammon (Esco Swanger)
Giovanni Ribisi (Junior)