Inman (Jude Law), a wounded Confederate soldier, walks away from the hospital to return to his home and to Ada (Nicole Kidman), a woman he barely knows.
But then, he barely knows himself or the world that has changed so completely around him. All around him is unspeakable brutality, terrible injury, and death. He thought he was fighting for honor and freedom. But as another soldier says, he feels that he is fighting to protect the rights of rich men to have slaves. No one around him seems to have the gentility, grace, and sweetness that he dreams that Ada had, that he dreams she still has.
Ada writes to tell Inman to come home. For her, too, if the war ever had a purpose, it now seems very far away.
So does the girl she was when the war began. Ada was raised by her minister father (Donald Sutherland) for a life of refinement and noblesse oblige. But when her father died and she was left alone she learned that she had none of the skills necessary to take care of herself. “I can embroider, but I can’t darn. I can arrange cut flowers, but I can’t grow them. If anything has a function, it wasn’t considered suitable.”
Ruby (Renee Zellweger) shows up to join forces with Ada, not as a laborer but as a partner. But the war is getting closer to them. Soldiers from both sides cover the countryside, the Confederates looking for deserters, the Union looking for provisions, both taking whatever they can.
Inman walks back to Cold Mountain, encountering an Odyssey-like assortment of characters and adventures, including a minister who is attempting to murder the slave he got pregnant (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely young mother (Natalie Portman), and a man who is less friendly than he seems.
Ada is faced with challenges at home as she and Ruby try to work the farm and stay out of the way of the trouble that seems to be coming toward them from every direction. Ruby’s estranged father (Brendan Gleeson), now a musician, shows up, and she must decide whether she can trust him.
The movie benefits from outstanding performances by the lead actors and a stunning range of first-rate performers in supporting roles, including Portman, Kathy Baker, and Giovanni Ribisi. The terrain of Romania, standing in for the 19th century South, is beautifully evocative, as is the splendid soundtrack, assembled by O Brother Where Art Thou’s T-Bone Burnett and featuring traditional works performed by White Stripes’ Jack White. But, as often happens in the adaptation of literary works, without the balance of the book’s poetic language, the images tend to overwhelm the subtle issues it raises about great and small conflicts.
Kidman’s radiant loveliness persuades us that a man could develop a lifetime of devotion after one kiss, but it would be easier to believe her experience of hardship and growth if that radiance dimmed just a little now and then. Zellweger brings some spunk to a role that is reduced to a colorful sidekick that is more Andy Devine than Eve Arden. This is a thoughtful, intelligent film with lovely performances and heartbreaking themes, but like its main characters, it has great difficulty reaching the conclusion it aspires to.
Parents should know that the movie has very graphic battle violence, with many characters wounded and killed. There are explicit sexual references and situations, including nudity, prostitution, and attempted rape. Characters engage in a swindle involving seduction and betrayal, with nudity and graphic references. One character impregnates a slave and tries to kill her. Another character demonstrates his moral values by turning down sexual offers so that he can remain faithful to the woman he loves. Characters use strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the perspective of this movie, sympathetic to the point of view of the deserter and putting a lot of emphasis on the challenges of the people who were not fighting the battles, differs from many stories set in wartime. What does that say about that era and ours? How does that relate to the description of what happens when the bird eats a seed? Ruby and Ada were both raised by their fathers. Which father prepared his daughter best for what she would have to do? What do each of the people Inman meets on his way home add to the story? If the sky were to fall down tomorrow, what would you want to make sure you said today?
Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate the classic Civil War stories, The Red Badge of Courage, Gone With the Wind, and The Friendly Persausion. They will also appreciate the other movies by this director, Truly, Madly, Deeply, The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, with variations on some of the themes of this movie, including lovers who are separated. A hard-to-find but very touching movie with some similar themes is Perfect Strangers, in which Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr play a boring British couple enlist during World War II and are each revitalized by their experiences. They reunite three years later, each worried that they will have nothing in common, to find that their experiences have made them much more appealing to each other.