Southern Odyssey

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2003

Has any man in history had a Christmas morning like the one the novelist Charles Frazier is having this very second? He opens up the big present under his tree and finds a first-class, literate, moving and sure-to-be-mega-successful movie adaptation of his bestseller "Cold Mountain."

Oh, that's right: He's a writer. Probably found something to grouse about already!

But here's the best part: It's a present for the rest of us as well.

"Cold Mountain," directed by the subtly spectacular craftsman Anthony Minghella, is one of those films that might be called "complete." It has everything, in the best possible way, but most importantly, it has a coherent, if tragic, view of life and society. It builds a world, takes you into it, makes you feel it; it tells a story, makes you love the characters, and pulls you through life, love and death. It's funny, it's heartbreaking, it's scary, it's exhilarating. It's got love stuff and lots of laughs and cool gunfights. It's really long and it feels like it's over in 15 minutes. It does something so few movies do these days: It satisfies.

Frazier's story, famously, was a fusion of classical sources -- "The Odyssey" in particular -- and family history. Where one stopped and the other started remains open to doubt, and Frazier isn't talking. But from Homer comes the prime image: a warrior-king in love, who's been at war too long, who is sick of slaughter, who yearns to return to an Ithaca. And in Ithaca there waits, patient and loyal but beleaguered, the noble Penelope. She is beset by problems and suitors, her only armor against an increasingly chaotic world her love of the man.

The trip here, of course, isn't from Troy to Ithaca but from Petersburg, Va., to Cold Mountain, N.C., in the cold winter of 1864. Our Odysseus is one of those naturally noble southern yeomen who charged at Gettysburg and held firm at the Marne and the Bulge and Pork Chop and Dak To and Tikrit. Inman (Jude Law) is scrawny and tough, good in a fight, good with guns, all in all a most capable man. But he's touched with a kind of special grace and kindness. He's something of a mystery to his buddies, except the one thing they know about him is that he'll be there when they need him, and he is, until they all are dead. As the movie opens, he is at the terrible crater in Petersburg, that awesome Union snafu where a bold tactical stroke -- a potentially siege-busting mine shaft filled with explosives under the Confederate lines -- resulted in tragedy when the assaulting troops became trapped in their own crater and were slaughtered like cattle. This wasn't much fun for them, but it wasn't for their killers, either.

Wounded, the war lost, Inman lies abed with the flies gathering at his blown-open neck. All his friends are dead. There arrives a letter from Ada Monroe (luminous Nicole Kidman), declaring her distress, wishing him home, confessing her adoration.

Here's the delirious stroke of genius from Frazier, left pristine by Minghella. Ada and Inman, Inman and Ada: They're in love to the level of souls, but it is, after all, the century before the century before this one, and things were different then. Love is ethereal and passionate and possibly more forceful because it doesn't involve sex until the words "I do" are spoken before the parson. In fact, the two have looked longingly at each other at Sunday meeting, have shared a few mumbled words (he's not exactly glib by nature) and exactly one kiss when Johnny went marching off to war, hurrah, hurrah. This love is all the more powerful for remaining unconsummated, uncontaminated by lust, an expression of feeling, not a jingle in the glands.

The movie thus follows, and cuts vividly (as did Homer, first master of the contrapuntal narrative) between the two stories: Inman gives himself an honorable discharge and hits the road, roaming across the dangerous world of a war, where he will be hunted not only by Yankees but also by homegrown "Home Guard," men who did not fight but have filled the power vacuum by decreeing themselves a militia with discretionary powers of search, seizure and execution.

The other story is Ada's. She's utterly of the century that spawned her, a delicate flower who can play frilly etudes on the piano and discuss Mr. Thoreau's disagreements with Mr. Emerson, but can't plant a bean to save her life. She was brought to Cold Mountain -- a kind of piney sanctuary high in the Blue Ridge -- from the more hospitable climes of Charleston by her pappy (Donald Sutherland), the reverend, who then up and died. So she's alone and languishing pitifully until the arrival of Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger).

There's no Ruby in "The Odyssey," but there sure is in feminist mythology and there sure is in "Cold Mountain." She's all grit and practicality and stubborn savvy, who don't take no sass from no man, nor woman nor child. Ruby is the spirit of reality, of what must be done to get through the night, and Zellweger all but steals the movie as this bundle of furious energy and concentration. She's not just admirable in her determination, but funny in it as well.

In fact, Minghella has gotten a sublime trio of performances from his stars, including his beautiful ones. People this gifted by their genetic mandates frequently just pose their way through life, but both Law and Kidman think hard about character and are willing to give up on being beautiful to be real. And, of course, that's the magic of movies: The more real they are, the more beautiful they seem.

I had trouble with the book because so many of Inman's adventures led nowhere and just ate up pages until he got home. I know, a minority view. Still, that problem seems muted in the more immediate experience of film production, and such interludes as the one with the promiscuous minister Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the goat lady (Eileen Atkins) and the lonely widow woman (Natalie Portman) feel of a piece with the picaresque, not arbitrary at all. And the general view of the ruined South as a ruined paradise, still rich in beauty (Romania stands in for a North Carolina, now too rich in Mickey Dee's to do a filmmaker any good) but blighted by hate and violence that stand against the love and nobility that was there already, is utterly convincing.

All in all, "Cold Mountain" is everything you could ask for. It's a great old-fashioned wallow of a time at the movies.

Cold Mountain (155 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company