I just saw a rare thing: a mediocre book turned into a damn good film. The last time I remember feeling this much better about a movie than a book it was Sofia Coppola's brilliant take on The Virgin Suicides. Obviously, that was a while ago.
I read Cold Mountain probably four or five years ago, and it pretty much left my mind as soon as I put it down. I didn't think it was good or bad--I just didn't think about it at all. Something in the previews made me want to see the film, though, and I am really glad I went with that instinct.
First off, the film is well acted. The major characters (Nicole Kidman as Ada and Jude Law as Inman) are pretty damn good, avoiding the overacting that would be so easy to slip into in their rather melodramatically written parts. The real gems, though, are the supporting cast. Small roles by the truly amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Giovanni Ribisi, as well as a surprisingly mature turn by Natalie Portman are fun to watch, but Renee Zellweger is the real star of the show as Ruby Thewes. Partially it is that Ruby is the best written part in both the book and the screenplay, but part of it something Zellweger manages to bring to the role herself. She delivers my favorite line, condeming war for what it is--men's bullshit-- "They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say 'Shit its raining,'" and she does it fucking perfectly. Just spot-on. She's funny, she's tough, and the juxtaposition of Kidman's spoiled Ada and her self-sufficient Ruby says all I needed to know about the small-town Southern women left behind during the Civil War.
Scenes of the war itself are, as is typically the case, too long and too bloody. We've seen that all before, from Braveheart to Courage Under Fire and in every movie about every war in between. There's blood, there's mud, there's smoke, there's death. If you've seen it once, you've seen it for every war movie, and I for one have no need to see it again. That being said, the cinematography is better than average, and other than a long battle scene at the beginning, the movie doesn't waste too much time on these things.
What it does focus on, and what I found really remarkable about it that I didn't feel in quite the same way from the book, is women struggling to survive while their country is being demolished. Left without resources, without money, and under attack from all sides (the Union Army, Confederate deserters, the Home Guard), we are faced over and over again with women fighting. Not fighting to kill, and not fighting for the almightly Confederacy, but fighting to survive, fighting to keep something for themselves and their children. It's a part of war that they don't like to make movies about, at least not in anything other than the most trite ways.
Another thing I found really admirable about the film was that the romantic relationship between Kidman and Law was not at the end allowed to overshadow the enduring relationship between Kidman and Zelleweger. To me, they were the interested and sustaining part of the film, and at the end they were what remained. You don't see that very often, and I appreciate it.
Finally, I was a big fan of the film's score. The theme song, "You Will Be My Ain True Love" (written by Sting and performed by the amazing Alison Krauss) is good stuff, but what really impressed me was the bluegrass-influenced music that sifted in and out of the scenes. The White Stripes' Jack White plays a Georgia musician in the film, and the songs he sang and arranged went a long way to help the viewer feel connected to what was going on in the South Carolina hills.
All in all, it was a damn good movie and I'd highly recommend it, particularly if you don't want to bother with the book. I definitely think the movie is a better investment of both time and money.