Anthony Minghella was Britain’s best director. Bar none. Don’t come to me with your Mike Leighs, your Ken Loachs. British cinema, as I’ve said in the past, is bloody miserable for the most part. Our celebrated directors make movies only a paltry number actually watch… full of drab minutiae, dampened hopes… Timothy Spall. I know there are those who thought Minghella made chocolate-box movies, that his every shot screamed bourgeois. But to his critics I say: bite me. Who else makes such movies? Good movies based on literature are, as Dr. Johnson said: “Like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Take Cold Mountain, for example; based on the novel by Charles Frazier. It’s an American Civil War story. A rich girl and a quiet man fall in love in a place named Cold Mountain, North Carolina. War breaks out and they are separated. They hardly know each other, yet their love is epic, adamantine, infallible. There’s a hint of Wuthering Heights about their story; something reinforced by Minghella’s decision to include Cathy’s quote: “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods; time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath—a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
Is Inman (the quiet man) a Heathcliff substitute? Maybe so, at least in Minghella’s mind. The thing with Cold Mountain (with my view of it, at least) is that it isn’t the movie it wants to be, but it has admirable aspirations. It’s the sort of movie that knows parallels between books (and movies) don’t necessarily have to be direct. If it had worked as Minghella intended, it would have been brilliant. As it is… Here’s how I see it: Inman (the quiet man) is Heathcliff, in as much as he possesses Heathcliff’s stoicism and his tragic fate. And Ada (the rich girl) is Cathy, in as much as she has Cathy’s spirit and her undying devotion. The parallel doesn’t work if you think too much of plotlines, but if you think of Cold Mountain’s heart – its idea of a love that lasts for years, despite the lovers sharing only one kiss – then it’s Wuthering Heights you think of, not North and South. No-one’s ever going to confuse the Yorkshire Moors with North Carolina, but to the lovers in these stories: earth is heaven, wherever they call home.
Jude Law is very mannered as Inman. He just about gets away with it, but in his most emotional scene (where he confesses, of Ada, “She’s the place I’m goin’!”) he strains so hard to find the right facial expression, you fear his eyebrows are going to fall off. He means well. You and I know it. But he’s got Robert Redford’s problem: he’s too pretty to play anguished. The part needs someone… rugged-er.
Nicole Kidman, as Ada, fights a battle for authenticity… and loses, as she has ever since she started freezing her forehead. One cannot convincingly play a 22 year old 19th century minister’s daughter when one is: a) 36, b) regularly receiving Botox injections. Part of the problem is that Kidman takes roles based on profile (the “Gimme! Gimme!”-paradigm); the other part is her accent. Neither is suitable.
Lots of things about Cold Mountain don’t work. The casting is at fault (Ray Winstone?); the love story doesn’t rise to match Wuthering Heights… But what does shine through is Anthony Minghella’s contribution. Could anyone else have made a movie of this book? Do other directors even read? In a world where the Wayans Brothers aren’t publicly executed for Little Man – Don’t we need Cold Mountain, just to reassure us there are alternatives… that all hope isn’t lost? I’ll miss Anthony Minghella. In a business where illiterate troglodytes rule, he stood up for books. Juliette Binoche called him “my friend of art”. He was a good friend to art, to her, to us.