So, yes, before anything else, let's get one thing clear:is as tailored a film for Oscar consideration as you will find this Academy Award, er, holiday season. Hoping to match the Oscar glory bestowed upon the 1997's epic The English Patient, the Weinsteins reunited with director Anthony Minghella with one primary goal: bring home the bacon. They bequeathed him an A-list cast with tons of "name" supporting characters and brought back most of The English Patient's A-list crew (including Oscar-winning cinematographer John Seale, trading in deserts for mountain ranges). With gorgeous, Oscar-friendly folk like Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger dotting your cinematic landscape, how could you go wrong?
But if the Weinsteins, and by extension Minghella, are guilty of deliberately craftingfor tissue-grabbing and award-season honors, they're vindicated by a capable adaptation of yet another dense novel for the big screen. Make no mistake, author Charles Frazier's 1997 National Book Award winner is no page-turner; it is a meditative work with huge expanses of rumination and despair and pages upon pages of no dialogue whatsoever. Then again, Minghella scored major critical kudos (with some backlash from fans) for his treatment of The English Patient, so theoretically, if anyone could crack the text of , it would be him.
And in many ways, he does it quite well here, once again stripping down the story to the more basic elements, which in Hollywood inevitably means the love story. He ratchets up the romance between icy, over-protected Ada Monroe (Kidman) and brooding, introspective W.P. Inman (Law). Getting most of the book's flashbacks out of the way by moving them up to the front, Minghella attempts to win our hearts over by early on establishing the connection between these two reluctant lovers. So while Ada tries to salvage her late father's (Donald Sutherland) farm, Inman deserts his Confederate unit to begin a long, Homeric trek home to Cold Mountain and (he hopes) Ada.
Because so much ofthe book was an homage of sorts to Homer's The Odyssey, there must have been some fear that Inman's long walk home (and some of Ada's homesteading) might come off as merely episodic on film. And at times it does. Minghella seems duty-bound to guide us through each of Inman's encounters: a defrocked preacher (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a scheming farmer (Giovanni Ribisi), a mystical old woman (Eileen Atkins), a young widowed mother (Natalie Portman). Yet, while checks in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes, it doesn't feel overlong. (I wish the same could be said for Frazier's sometimes labored book.) That's usually the work of fine editing, and sure enough, Walter Murch -- one of Hollywood's few rock-star editors and the guy who saved Apocalypse Now -- has his fingerprints all over this one, keeping the film moving along at an almost brisk pace, considering the subject matter.
Wheredoes get bogged down, though, is in the acting, which is as mixed a bag as you'll find this year. There's almost no doubt that all of the leads will score Oscar nominations -- that is the point after all -- but few rise above the level of competent. Part of the problem lies in, dare I say it, the accents. Minghella, you see, is a Brit, and so he brings along many of his Old World buddies for the ride: the Aussie Kidman; English folk Law, Eileen Atkins and Ray Winstone; Irishman Brendon Gleeson. And almost to a person, they butcher the rich North Carolina twang that Frazier so meticulously captured on paper.
Kidman in particular is a waste here. As much as she is lauded for her versatility -- with The Hours, this movie and The Human Stain, she appears to be bucking for the Literary Queen of Hollywood -- she looks uncomfortable with both her role and her language here. Call me a defensive Southerner if you must, but if they're going to send the British Isles and their offshoot into the mountains of North Carolina, then by all rights we should be able to send Billy Bob Thornton to pinch-hit for Russell Crowe as Master and Commander's Jack Aubrey, can't we? Danged carpetbaggers!
Bad Southern accents have long plagued Hollywood movies, so this is nothing new. It's just a shame that a story so grounded in authenticity -- Frazier researched the history, geography and people of his home state with religious zeal -- speaks in faked tongues.
The lone, grand exception to the rule is Gleeson as Stobrod Thewes, the rehabilitated father of Zellweger's Ruby. If there is anyone threatening to walk away with this film, it's the grizzled Gleeson (The General, Gangs of New York), who actually brings a violinist's training to Stobrod's fiddle-playing deserter. "I scarred ya," he admits to his skeptical daughter, before insisting, "Music's changed me." His playing, singing and sad eyes make everyone, even Ruby, believe him.
While we're on accents, here's a begrudging nod to Zellweger, whose native Texas accent blurts from the screen to lend a redneck realism to the proceedings as Ruby, the ultimate nature girl who helps Ada save her farm from the elements and the evil Teague (Winstone). That Zellweger lays it on thick, both in accent and acting, is both a blessing and a curse. When she's not spouting off one homespun witticism after another (often in list form), she's staring at Ada and everyone else with a puffy snarl; this is what we call affectation. Still, Zellweger's the only one who seems to want to breathe some life into her performance. She's the joker in this deck, whether you like her or not.
Law, who scored an Oscar nomination in Minghella's previous work, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a little overmatched in tackling the somber Inman. No matter how much mud, blood and horror Minghella smears on him, Law's duende -- like Kidman fueled by blonde locks and fiery blue eyes -- always shines through. Yet, Law keeps slugging away at Inman's role just as Inman lurches ever homeward, both of them fighting against the odds to survive.
But if there are stars of this show, they are the sights and sounds, not unlike the way they shimmered throughout The English Patient. Instead of a golden, wavy desert, Seale found himself shooting in the mountains of Romania as well as Southern states, and the effect is entrancing. Seale is the kind of cameraman who can make snow look like life and death all at once, and his forests are rich and mysterious.
And as suspicious as I was while watching, ready to dismiss it for its premeditated ways, I kept wondering why there was this lump in my throat creeping up -- just as it did toward the conclusion of the novel. Was it the depth of the story? Was it the clinging desire to see Ada and Inman reunite and live happily ever after? Nope, it was the music, courtesy of bluegrass/folk songs produced by T-Bone Burnett (with advice from Louisiana's Dirk Powell). The real zinger is Alison Krauss' lament, "You Will Be My Ain True Love." Minghella capitalizes on Krauss' mournful wail early and often, and it strikes every sentimental chord in your being -- making as affecting as the Weinsteins want it to be. Give 'em the Oscars, already. Like Inman himself, I'm tired of fighting those damn Yankees.