Over the weekend, thanks to Netflix, I finally gained the summit of Cold Mountain, the 2003 movie with Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger (who won an Oscar for best supporting actress).
Cold author Charles Frazier makes his home in our parts, and it was a big to-do when his book became such a gargantuan seller, but I managed to miss the movie, partly because I found the book somewhat flat, and partly because Hollywood rarely does the South in a satisfying way.
And I missed it also because it was billed as a kind of modern Homer's Odyssey,and when that happens with any modern story I'm turned off. It's the movies and stories that no one knows are like the Odyssey that end up being most like it.
Now, however, I invoke the Odyssey comparison because I missed a connection initially that the movie makes visually unmistakable. I had been concentrating on the main male character, Inman, and his physical journey, because the energy of the journey dominates Cold Mountain the book. But the movie concentrates equally on the spiritual odyssey of Ada Monroe (MUNN-row, that's pronounced, BTW), adding a dimension to her story that was not as readily apparent in the book.
Cold Mountain the book stars minutely-researched authenticity. Besides the numerous obsolete or little-used words and phrases in the novel's vocabulary ("pinchbeck brooch," "blackberry winter," "maul and froe," "worm boluses," "minie' ball"), the process by which a thing is done is often dwelt upon in great detail. These elements combine to create a world that is believable and alien. To this appreciater of the past, this is an admirable quality in a book. I'm impatient when anyone assumes that the way we live and think today is the way others must also have lived and thought in the past.
The plot is simple, and classic: a wounded Confederate soldier deserts from a field hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1864, in order to rejoin his sweetheart in Appalachian southwest North Carolina, near Asheville. Return is central to the Odyssey as well, though Odysseus of Ithaca is neither wounded nor a deserter but a conquering hero, bound for his home at the close of the Trojan War.
At home, women wait-- Penelope in the Odyssey and Ada in Cold Mountain-- and deal with loneliness, deprivation, and predatory men. For Penelope it is the suitors, 117 louts who vie for her hand in marriage (they think Odysseus has died at sea); for Ada it is Teague, a large landowner who leads the corrupt Home Guard, which is charged with finding deserters from the Confederate Army.
In both tales, the soldiers come back from war and clash with the men at home, with varying degrees of success, and high levels of bloodshed.
I found the journey and character of Inman to be flat both in the book and the movie, especially in the book. Inman is a dogged everyman, so tested by his wound, his hunger, and his exhaustion that he is scarcely able to register any affect. Frazier compromises little for his readers in depicting a journey without glamour or high adventure-- just encounter after encounter with people and things that the war has twisted and soured. By the time Inman reaches Ada, the ending comes as no surprise in its lack of spectacle.
In Cold Mountain the movie Jude Law brings out Inman as a taciturn but sensitive Christian man who is uncomfortable with opportunism and moral relativism. This is especially evident in the appalling scene with Natalie Portman as an isolated widow with a sick baby and a loaded rifle. That episode will stay with me for a long time to come. But there is little or no arc to Inman's character in the book or the movie. He is the canvas and his journey the paint.
The real Odyssey, it turns out, belongs to Ada, and to Kidman, who in the beginning of the movie is about as brilliant white in skin and dress as the dove caught in the chapel that Inman coaxes to his hand. "That's a real Southern belle," says one of the Cold Mountain townspeople as she arrives from gentile Charleston, South Carolina, with her learned father, the new parson. She is, in a way, like a Helen, a most-beautiful-woman-in-the world, in a new city.
Besides being beautiful and out of place, Ada is a pampered intellectual, an only child who can't cook, who hardly knows what to do with her attraction to Inman. When he professes his love, leaves for war, and her father dies some time thereafter, Ada is forced to innovate or sink into a spiral of lethal depression. The arrival of Ruby (Zellweger), a hard-bitten daughter of an abusive alcoholic, jumpstarts Ada's new life as an independent, competent farm owner. The preacher's daughter ditches her girly-girl outfits for darker and more utilitarian clothing, and there is nothing more dramatic in her growth than to see her, after all that gauzy white, in a black felt hat reminiscent of that which Inman wears throughout his journey.
That visual cue helps the viewer of the movie appreciate Ada's shift from a Helen into a Penelope-- that is, from a piece of delicate china-- a prize-- into a practical survivor. It is somehow fitting that when Ada and Inman finally meet again he is facing the business end of Ada's shotgun.
Ada's spiritual journey thus mirrors that of Odysseus, who leaves Troy as a boastful, uncautious sacker of cities, one completely unfit for home life, and ends as a canny and flexible survivor. His inner changes punctuate the thousands of physical miles covered in the Odyssey and give the poem its greatness. Without this spiritual element the poem would have been a series of folk tales, some funny, some scary, without unity.
Cold Mountain the movie is deeply affecting in many ways, and a different experience from the book. I don't consider it a classic or a perfect 10, and I agree with the Academy that Zellweger deserved an Oscar but that the other parts of the movie weren't as good. But this is still an excellent piece of work from screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella. I liked The English Patient better (it's in my top twenty), but there's a lot to like in both.
It's hard to get the South right in film. There's just too much cultural layering that is impossible to capture in two and a half hours. Minghella, however, used the film medium to capture Ada's transformation in a winning, professional manner. Hats off to him.