Not really recommended. You know, after the moral atrocity that was The English Patient, I didn’t know Minghella could actually appreciate true virtues. Or at least try to, as he tries in this film to do so. Unfortunately, it ends up being the same old Romantic worship of individual feelings over higher values that The English Patient was. First of all, Nicole Kidman is brilliant, playing the Southern Belle waiting for her man, Jude Law, to return from the Civil War. Renee Zellweger is also great as a woman who teaches the aristocratic Kidman to learn how to fend for herself with pragmatic knowledge. This is a great and typically American critique of aristocratic high culture. Kidman can name the constellations in the night sky but doesn’t know true north to navigate. She can arrange flower displays, but doesn’t know how to grow flowers. She can play music, but doesn’t know a thing about a farm. And when her father dies and she is left alone to fend for herself and tend the farm, she is a failure until Renee shows up and teaches her like a student while she forces her to milk the cows and plant the crops. It’s a great critique of useless knowledge for status sake in favor of knowledge of how to survive. Aristocracy versus the working man – or woman. Unfortunately, Jude Law is completely soulless in his portrayal as the Confederate soldier who deserts the war to go back to his beloved to marry her. What was great about this film was how it elevated the honorableness of two lovers saving themselves sexually for each other, especially the man, through temptations and trials. Nice to see that such “antiquated” values are still elevated in some movies, surprising though it may be in a world filled with fornication to excess (although they usually have to take place in the “distant” past). This is something that was a noble part of Southern culture, respect for women and politeness toward them. Even when the lovers consummate at the end, there is an attempt to validate it through impromptu marriage vows, AFTER Jude says he will wait for the wedding ceremony even after all these three years of searching and finally finding her. Now, that is virtue. Virginity as virtue . I was grateful for the balance of viewpoints in showing both Northern and Southern soldiers as capable of goodness and evil. It is so typical and pure bigoted prejudice to always show the South as all wicked and evil people and the Northerners as heros. Two other movies that break that bigoted mold against the South are Ride With the Devil and Gods and Generals. Since it is an updating of the Odyssey, Cold Mountain plays with the idea of fate, as one character says, “There’s a plan for each and every one of us. We all got a job.” Sad to say, the true living God is ignored in this understanding, in a way that violates history, since most Southerners were very strong Christians. Of course, Christianity does get it’s stereotypical riddling in the pastor, played well by Philip Seymour Hoffman, guilty of being the secret wanton sex addict. Predictable stereotype. But at least Kidman’s father was an authentic man of God (a pastor too), so there’s some balance there. The real violation of this story is that it is another Existentialist war movie. It denigrates higher causes and elevates human lovers as the highest good to seek. This is woefully unsatisfying for anyone who has seen the true end of such things. The Existentialist lives for the moment, not for the future or for something higher than himself. As Jude Law says, the moments he had with Kidman were everything, even the moments that they dreamed in their hearts while separated. “It don’t matter if they’re real or made up. The shape of your neck, that’s real.” The Existentialist notion that abstract thoughts are nothing compared to real human experience. So Minghella’s worldview considers personal subjective experience of one another to be the significance of life. How shallow and empty because not only do people, including lovers, fail one another, but they are not eternal within themselves. Moments and experiences and people have no value if they are not rooted in an eternal, outside and higher than one’s self. If Minghella thinks the physical experiences with one another is all we have, then he’s living in the Matrix, baby. And you know, no matter what side you are on, North or South, the Civil War sure did have higher values worth fighting and dying for. To negate that as unimportant in a sort of “can’t we all get along” simplistic pacifism is worse than ignorant, it is criminal. This is very common now in war movies to reject the “higher cause” in favor of the individual. But we have to realize that the result of this Romantic Individualism is NOT to give value to the individual as they suppose, but to totally deny value to the individual altogether. Without a higher cause, there is nothing but the will to power. The strong eat the weak, and that’s just too bad for the weak. For more detail on this see my article: “War Movies: The New Trend in Themes”
I think one of the reasons why the movie is not doing well at the box office is because after this 2 hour and 30 minute journey of getting back to his sweetheart, Jude Law dies at the end. He is killed by the marauding bounty hunters who are tracking down deserters so they can get their lands and possessions, Kidman’s farm being the biggest prize. Well, I must applaud the storytellers here because it is a moment of higher values in a movie filled with Romantic individualism. Jude really must die because after all, he is a deserter that is deserving of death no matter what your side of the war. Desertion is cowardice and treason, which is not a good character trait to invest in your hero. That makes this a flawed heroic journey, and thus an unsatisfying one for the viewer.