Cold Mountain; Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Le Divorce; Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

 Cold Mountain

However one responded to The English Patient, it was clear that writer-director Anthony Minghella was a fine movie craftsman and and a director of elegant films. The comparison usually offered is David Lean and it is a reasonable one here. This is especially true of Cold Mountain.

Minghella has adapted the novel by Charles Frazier into a two hour post Civil War epic journey. Minghella does not neglect the war. His portrayal of the siege of Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1864 is quite extraordinary with its quiet picture of the confederate defences, the dynamiting by the Yankees and their eager attack which has them attacking, then massed against a wall from which they cannot retreat. If there were to be a picture of the horrors of war, we have it here.

However, the focus is on the community of Cold Mountain where the minister's daughter Ada (Nicole Kidman) writes letters to Inman, (Jude Law) whom she came to know briefly before he went to the war. Impoverished, she finds it difficult to accept charity, finds the attentions of Teague (Ray Winstone) the ruthless redneck leader of the Home Guard whose mission it is to round up and kill deserters very unwelcome and who has to learn to put aside some of her genteel ways and work to survive. The catalyst for this transformation is backwoodsman Ruby who comes to help and brooks no nonsense from Ada. Renee Zellwegger puts aside the glamour of Chicago and Down with Love and gives a commanding performance. It is not meant as a put down but as a compliment to say that if they decided to revive Ma Kettle on screen, Zellwegger could do wonders with her.

The core of the film is Inman's epic journey, his odyssey, from the Carolina coast through the farmlands and the mountains, the changing seasons back to Ada and Cold Mountain. Along the way, in the different encounters, we are given some fine cameos from an excellent cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kathy Baker, Eileen Atkins, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, Brendan Gleeson, all of whom are worth seeing.

Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King
Whatever one's views on the trilogy, it must be said at the outset that Peter Jackson's achievement in bringing Tolkein's epic to the screen is unique, an extraordinary part of cinema history. Not only did he adapt and co-write the novel, he produced, directed and co-ordinated spectacular special effects. And he did it all in New Zealand.

The faith that the producers had in him that they allowed him to make all three films at once has been justified. The success of the first two films also provided financial leeway for him to fine tune and re-shoot so that the third episode would be just as he wanted. He was able to work with a large cast of international actors to create Tolkein's characters acceptable to the vast readership of the novels. In keeping to the threefold structure of Tolkein's work and incorporating most of the key elements, he has satisfied most of the purists, encouraged a new and young readership to open the trilogy and made fantasy more than respectable.

The first two films were honoured with technical Oscars. While the films were nominated for Best Film awards, they did not win. Whether the trilogy wins awards or not, the complete work deserves honours.

The Return of the King is filmed with light, even brightness, compared with The Two Towers. It still has its dark side as Frodo and Sam are led and misled by Golum in Mordor. In fact, the episode with Frodo and the spider in the cave as frightening as an arachnophobic monster film. The battles, too, are impressive, not only the flying creatures taking up soldiers in their mouths and tossing them around, but the mammoths and their relentlessly heavy tread as they advance (the sound engineering making them truly alarming).

With three basic plot stories intercutting, The Return of the King is easier to get hold of: Frodo completing his mission, Gandalf urging Rohan to war, Aragorn and the king riding to do battle with Sauron's troops. Another advantage of this film is that all of the characters have the opportunity to have a specific dramatic sequence that stamps their presence in the film and in the minds and feelings of the audience. It is interesting that the film opens with Gollum in his human form (Andy Serkis) dramatising his evil choices and his transformation into the split personality villain. The character who comes into his own in this film is Sam, played with solid loyalty and friendship by Sean Astin.

Tolkein coined the work 'eucatastrophe'. It means a disaster which is played out in all its tragic aspects but which leads to a good outcome. It is the equivalent of the 'happy fault' of Adam that led to the incarnation, of the passion and death of Jesus that led to resurrection. The battle between good and evil on the large scale in the trilogy, the struggle in Gollum which fails, the struggle in Frodo which succeeds are part of this experience of eucatastrophe. After the battles and the restoration of the king, as in Shakespeare's plays, there is the return of social order. Frodo goes on to another land, a hero. But Sam and the Hobbits stay in the shire where all is well.

Le Divorce

James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and writer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, have build a strong reputation for making literate, opulent and stately versions of classic writers, especially Henry James (The Europeans, The Bostonians, The Golden Bowl) and EM Forster (A Room with a View, Maurice and Howards' End). These films tend to be dismissed as museum pieces by younger commentators who are more MTV generation of pace and style as well as older commentators who feel that movies should radiate obvious vitality.

Le Divorce is something of a challenge. It uses the same storytelling devices, creation of characters and dramatically plotted interactions as the period films but it is set in contemporary Paris. Once again, especially as in the Henry James adaptations, the Americans are the innocents abroad, eager to learn from Europe but failing to realise until it is too late what the traditional Europeans, the French, really think of them and the contempt beneath the scarcely veiled ironic politeness. So, here we are in Merchant-Ivory territory only the look and the sounds are contemporary.

The plot is reminiscent of an Altman ensemble film. It centres on two sisters, Naomi Watts (an American expatriate artist married to a Frenchman, with one child and another on the way) and Kate Hudson (eager to support her sister, especially when her husband walks out on her, but also eager to sample the heterodox ways of marriage and mistresses). The implications of the actions of the two sisters are enough for a mini-series. Matthew Modine portrays (far too eccentrically) the enraged husband of the woman Naomi's husband has absconded with. Thierry Lhermitte portrays the aging businessman roue who has no trouble with the beginning or the end of the affair.

The parent generation consists of Sam Waterston and Stockard Channing as the 'what are we doing in Paris?' Americans and Leslie Caron as the erring husband's mother. Glenn Close (doing something of a Germaine Greer) is the worldly wise author who has learned more than a thing or two in her thirty years in France but who is now happy to leave it all behind.

There is froth and glamour, licit and illicit romance, snobbery and naivete, realism with a touch of magic (especially a floating umbrella over the rooftops of Paris) and a sudden plunge into melodrama that takes one off guard and seems a bit preposterous. But, of course, all's well that ends well.

Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself

This is low-key film-making. Danish director, Lone Schefring, had a hit with her Dogme comedy, Italian for Beginners, and won many festival awards (including the Berlin Ecumenical award). That was an entertaining bittersweet comedy of a fascinating group of people and their relationships. Wilbur is more modest in scope, is bittersweet and quite restrained in its presentation of its relationships.

Filming in English in Glasgow locations and Copenhagen sets, Lone Schefring focuses on four principal characters. There is Wilbur himself, a depressive who makes several suicide attempts and who contemplates death all the time. His brother Harbour is a nice man, devoted to Wilbur, caring for him and the bookshop left to them by their recently deceased father. He meets a single mother with a young daughter and soon marries her. The rest of the plot complications are best left to be seen on screen. However, it is no secret that they are about love and death, but with some surprises.

Jamie Sives makes a brooding but sympathetic Wilbur and Adrian Rawlins is even more sympathetic as Harbour. It is a strange but nice brotherly relationship. Shirley Henderson is Alice, the single mother, whose life is brightened by her marriage to Harbour. Not a lot happens in terms of plot, but the characters are interesting and there is a lot of feeling in the performances and the direction.

A pleasant family comedy drama set in Glasgow. Actually, it's that kind of Family comedy, two New Jersey mafiosi take refuge with their fish and chip shop owner cousins after a deal goes wrong in the Ukraine. The Ukrainians make contact with their thugs from Liverpool - Eastern European crime lords are doomed if they rely on ineffectual crooks like these. There are also some locals who want to take over the fish and chips shop. This mob is a far more violent and serious menace.

Which is not to say that the violence is the main theme of the film. Rather, the two mafiosi turn out to be quite decent chaps (within their vocational limits) and help out in domestic ways as well as a bit of professional know-how. As played by Dan Hedaya and Danny Nucci, they are mostly very genial. On the local scene, Gerard Lepkowski is an obviously nice man, ethical but with a reticent charm. Shirley Henderson helps out at the shop and is in love with the owner. But neither of them say anything until it is almost too late.

This is the kind of quirky local film that gets overlooked in the wake of the big blockbusters but which many people would find nicely entertaining (though with the Celtic propensity for for four-letter emphasis), with interesting characters, some good humour and some happy comeuppance for the villains.

LONDON - 12 January 2004 - 1,772 words

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