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Cold Mountain – literature and music 1 – cinema 0

haughtiness leads to naughtiness

haughtiness leads to naughtiness

Cold Mountain – Anthony Minghella

For Anthony Minghella it seems there is nothing like a good book: The English Patient (Ondaatje), The Talented Mr Ripley (Highsmith) and now his much praised adaptation of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. In so far as this demonstrates a faith in good writing, I’m with him all the way. But I would recommend a good book to him: William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? Goldman, a very experienced screen writer, insists that the main rule of adaptations is: “you cannot be literally faithful to the source material….you should not be faithful to the source material. It is in a different form, a form that does not have the camera.” But most of all “you must be totally faithful to the intention of the source material.”

The enormous success of The English Patient might seem to give the lie to Goldman. But did it? Cold Mountain shares all the wonderful individual cinematic skills found in the earlier movie: breathtaking cinematography, excellent performances (of which more in a moment), another superb Gabriel Jared score, and editing, note perfect to the score. It would be interesting to know whether Jared composed to Minghella’s editing or vice versa – perhaps a combination of both. There is certainly a musical precision to Minghella’s editing and he loves to underscore tender and poignant moments of his story with a single, plaintive melodic piano line. The filming and the story ebbs and flows like a musical theme and the elegiac, tragic nature of the two films lends itself wonderfully to this treatment. Up to a point.

But there’s the rub. The English Patient just about overcame its often ponderous rhythm and pace. Cold Mountain almost doesn’t. I say almost because again there is so much that delights the eye and engages the mind. But the historical context of TEP imbued it with a dramatic drive to carry it through when the slowness of the unwinding story was beginning to try our patience. In Cold Mountain, although set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the essence of the story is that Jude Law’s Inman, leaves the horror of this conflict behind him. Disillusioned with the war, he is drawn back to his roots on Cold Mountain and his unrequited passion for Nicole Kidman’s Ada. The battle scenes, however brilliantly shot, still appear dramatically peripheral to the heart of the story; unlike TEP where the lovers were deeply embroiled in the dramatic historical events around them.

Perhaps more significantly, Ada and Inman’s love has to provide all the emotional driving force for the action, and as portrayed in the film, this love-at-first-sight attraction has virtually nothing in the way of contact or shared experience to render it credible. This can be overcome but it is a tall order. It puts all the weight on the two protagonists. And this is the central problem with Cold Mountain. Jude Law is better than he has ever been, including to my English ears, a tone perfect American accent. The problem, yet again for me, I’m afraid is Nicole Kidman. In interviews, this actress seems a ballsy, feisty, independent-minded woman. So where does it all go on screen? She ‘acts’ far too much for the cinema, but she just does not have that contained passion and incipient loss of control, that other screen ‘ice-maidens’ have put on the screen: Kelly, Bergman, even Audrey Hepburn or stiff and starchy Deborah Kerr. In TEP Kristin Scott Thomas at least made you believe she was overcome by a passion she could not resist. But the passion was there, in the performance, not just implied by the script.

If someone can bring this quality out of the undoubtedly beautiful Nicole Kidman on screen, then one feels the celluloid might melt in the camera. Maybe it just isn’t there. She is a thoroughly professional actress, but for this viewer, about as incendiary as Meryl Streep; another fine actress but one who could never have made Ada credible either. Mind you Minghella doesn’t help Kidman much, making her far too made-up elegant throughout, almost ludicrously so at the dramatic climax to the film. Her earlier, slightly scruffy black coat suddenly looks as if it’s been hanging neatly in a nearby cave, waiting for a final sponge and press for the big scene. Her hair and make-up reinforce this ludicrous incongruity. When we are supposed to be lost in the drama and emotion of the culmination of Inman’s epic journey back and their rekindled passion, we are distracted and thereby distanced from these key emotions by a serious, silly, technical misjudgment. It ruins the most dramatic scene in the movie. Curiously, in the coda to the film Minghella sees sense and scrubs the later Ada of make-up and fancy clothes and Kidman has a kind of shiny, unadorned look that would have helped her enormously earlier in the movie. I know her character was supposed to be out of place and too refined for the gnarled sons of the soil on Cold Mountain but Rene Zellweger’s Ruby had knocked off many of these corners much earlier in the film.

Kidman leaves a void at the heart of the film which is a metaphor for her own acting and this almost sinks it. This tragic, deeply romantic story should move us, but eyes remain stubbornly dry, heart rate steady: because Nicole Kidman can only act sadness not be it on screen. (Similarly Nicholson in After Schmidt). And it is the performance not the material – despite the schlocky manipulative weaknesses of a film like ‘Love Story’, the young Ali McGraw was perfectly cast and draws a tear, however guilty one feels about it. This quality, thankfully, defies technical analysis and each actress possessing its magic wields it differently: think of Bergman (Casablanca), Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Kelly (High Society) etc. This last is a perfect example, for the role of Tracy in High Society is virtually unplayable by anyone else – Grace Kelly transcends the characterisation and the writing. The overall effect is: lost, wrapped up in the magic of great films, for a brief 2 hours or so one falls in love with these people not their characters. This conspiratorial illusion is part of the essence of movies and the delicious, magical hold they have over us.

In Cold Mountain Minghella’s considerable technical cinematic skills mentioned above, and some superb character performances to re-inforce Jude Law’s excellent lead, keeps the film always interesting and engaging. Zellweger’s is of course the ‘star turn’ much loved of the Academy, but there are much better, quieter performances to savour.

Cold Mountain is a good, entertaining, engaging film. It falls short of its aspiration mostly because of this one problematic piece of casting. But there is something else: Minghella has developed a directorial style which denies his technically accomplished films essential variations in pace and rhythm to make them come alive cinematically. He puts the camera to the service of an essentially literary rhythm and by weaving into it a musically satisfying but cinematically one-dimensional score, he compounds the problem. Literature and Music 1 – Cinema 0. It’s a shame, as Minghella certainly, and Kidman possibly, have potentially great films in them. Jury’s out: until then we must content ourselves with simply skillful, enjoyable entertainment.

(February 2004)

(Sadly we shall now never know with the sad loss of Anthony Minghella – Zettel 2008)

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