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A Civil War odyssey
on 17 March 2013
This ambitious, epic, mostly successful film is based on not one but two of my favourite books: Charles Frazier`s great novel of the same name, which is in its turn loosely based on Homer`s Odyssey. It was the second film of the new century to be based on Homer`s classic tale of a soldier trying, against almost insurmountable obstacles, to get home to his woman, the other being the Coen Brothers` wonderful O Brother, Where Art Thou?
It`s a gorgeous film to look at, filmed mainly on location in the Carolinas and Virginia. The South has rarely appeared so ravishing. But pretty pictures do not a good film make, so it`s lucky the late Anthony Minghella`s film benefits from some superb performances - as well as one or two dubious ones.
In the central roles of Inman (Odysseus/Noman in the Odyssey) and Ada (Penelope) are Jude law, who has seldom been this powerful or seemed this committed, and Nicole Kidman, who is a little too old in the part, but pulls out all the necessary emotional stops, finally convincing in a tough role.
Renee Zellweger is funny and discreetly scene-stealing in her Oscar-winning role as Ruby, who moves in with Ada and gets the farm back on its feet.
Other roles - many of them brief cameos - are taken by Donald Sutherland, lovely as Ada`s priest father, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a somewhat different kind of priest, Kathy Baker excellent as the women`s loyal friend, Giovanni Ribisi typically slippery as a householder with a family of sluttish daughters, and Ray Winstone effective in a meaty part as self-styled lawman Teague, but with a roaming American accent (he really shouldn`t be asked to play Americans, he simply can`t keep up the accent, sounding like a Cockney Confederate throughout).
There are two brilliant, totally natural portrayals: Brendan Gleeson as Ruby`s rascally father, an itinerant musician; and possibly the film`s best performance, by Natalie Portman as a widow left with a baby and little else, with whom Inman spends a (presumably) chaste night. She burns up the screen - far better in ten minutes than her overwrought lead in The Black Swan.
Eileen Atkins has a small part as a crone living in a hut in the woods, who tends to Inman`s wounds. Like Winstone, she should never be entrusted with any role which requires an American accent. Why on earth didn`t they get Americans to play such roles? (The great Dame is no better in this rsepect in The Hours, nor are Winstone`s laughably Sarf London tones any more convincing in The Departed.)
Jack White is surprisingly good as one of Gleeson`s musician buddies, and possible suitor to the resolutely unromantic Ruby, and even gets to sing and pluck on a mandolin.
The battle scenes are superbly handled - giving an impression of the horror and sheer bloodiness of a war in which more American people died than in all the other wars in which the US has taken part put together (unlikely but true).
On the whole, this is a moving and honourable film, especially if you`ve already been touched by Frazier`s deservedly prize-winning novel. Its length is justified, though there are longeurs, as well as one or two moments which might have been better thought-through. For example, the usually mesmerising Seymour Hoffman seems a touch under-rehearsed, his performance lacking a little in focus.
The music and songs are well chosen, and the two-disc set comes with plenty of fascinating extras.
An almost great film.