I have to break the movie up into its elements and rate them, because that will make it clearer what I thought of it.
Jude Law’s performance (he does the quiet, capable, intense types very, very well), the cinematography, the editing, the music, the whole visual package were simply beautiful. The war scenes were spectacular without being gratituitous. Individual shots will stay in my mind for a long time, such as the young boy from Cold Mountain who climbs out of a collapsed trench after a huge explosion and stands, stripped to the skin, looking at the sky before he’s sucked down into the battle. Jude Law’s face when he hears the latest letter from home read aloud to him while he lies in a hospital bed. These images — hundreds of images like these — make the movie worth seeing. On the basis of these things alone I’d give the movie full marks.
But there were problems. I wasn’t worried about the length of the movie; it never struck me as boring, or slow — I probably could have sat through another twenty minutes without noticing the time — but the screenplay I found seriously flawed.
I try never to compare movies to books, but in this case the major flaw of the book was amplified in the movie, and here it is:
Charles Frazier wrote a fictionalized account of his own family’s history in the Civil War, but he stuck pretty much (as I understand it) to the facts. A soldier walks away from the war because he’s had enough, and the journey home is fraught with symbolic encounters. The young woman who has been waiting for him through all the years of the war has had her own tragedies to deal with. Both of them are confronted by the extremes of good and evil that humankind has to offer; Ada and Inman survive, in part, because they hold on to the idealized memories they have of each other. Will he make it home? That issue is never really in doubt. Will they find in each other the person they hope to find? That’s not the question either. The story suffers because the second question is never entertained, and the first one is manipulated. The result is an ending that is so strikingly, exceedingly painful and even overwrought that it almost negates the whole story that comes before. The ending may be true to the historical record, but in this case (as is so often true) history is not the stuff of satisfying fiction. Or filmmaking.