It's surely an unprecedented novelty for Triangle filmgoers to have not one but two of Hollywood's big year-end pictures deriving from the work of local authors. But perhaps even more surprising is the excellence of both Big Fish and Cold Mountain. Believe me, there's pride, but no local chauvinism in the judgment that these are two of the year's best films, ones that should rank at the top of your holiday must-see list.
A deliriously phastasmagoric trip through one man's (inner) life, Big Fish--adapted by John August from Daniel Wallace's novel--is easily one of the most delightful visions of the South ever to emerge from Hollywood. Funny thing, though, the movie it kept reminding me of wasn't some previous depiction of the South, or even one of director Tim Burton's earlier pictures, but The Wizard of Oz. The main difference is that while Dorothy makes one trip to Oz, Big Fish shuttles us repeatedly between here and there, now and then, life and larger-than-life.
Those dualities, and the tensions implied between them, are aptly evoked by the movie's title, which hints at both "big fish in a small pond" and "the one that got away." In the former, we have an image of constraining reality. In the latter, an emblem of fanciful escape.
In Big Fish, both terms apply to the audaciously named Edward Bloom (the Joycean moniker alerts us to one thing this film shares with Cold Mountain: a connection to The Odyssey). From some standpoints, perhaps, Edward is your standard-issue Alabama husband and father, a guy made exceptional only by his tendency toward grandiose tale-spinning.
Should he be described as ebullient or irritating? That would depend on who's doing the describing. As the story begins, we're looking at an ailing Edward--here played by Albert Finney--through the eyes of his son Will (UNC-CH alum Billy Crudup), who plainly finds his dad's yarns annoying as hell. Indeed, Will has moved to Paris, where he's a journalist, seemingly to escape his father's verbosity. When a medical urgency obliges him to return, Will is also obliged to confront Edward's propensity for turning every mundane fact into an extravagant fable.
His main topic is his own life, and as Will listens to his recollections, Edward spirits us off to a place where everything seems to be touched by magic. As a teenager--the younger Edward is played by Ewan McGregor--he decides he must escape the small-pond confines of Ashton, Alabama. But, typically, he doesn't leave like any ordinary mortal. Rather, he captures, befriends and domesticates a Bigfoot-like giant who has been terrorizing the town, and makes him his traveling companion.
Their odyssey is eye-popping. After Edward detours into a Brigadoon-like village called Spectre, whose oddly happy inhabitants go barefoot, he and the giant find work in a circus run by a conniving trickster named Amos Calloway (Danny Devito). It's there that Edward gets his first glimpse of the girl who, he instantly determines, will be his wife (Alison Lohman earlier, Jessica Lange later). His Herculean campaign to find and win her eventually includes a trip to Auburn University and 10,000 daffodils.
The further Edward's autobiography gets from Arcadian Ashton, the more it intersects with recognizable history, but even then it retains its fantastical air. In the Korean War he not only performs heroically but also joins forces with a pair of singing Siamese twins who return to the States with him.
Given the outlandishness of these and others of Edward's "memories," it's hard to imagine a more appropriate director for Big Fish than Tim Burton, whose style here fuses surrealism, magic realism and his characteristic brand of post-Disney Hollywood Gothic. Will some Burton fans consider the movie not "dark" enough? Perhaps. In some ways, the film's open-heartedness makes it to his oeuvre what The Straight Story is to David Lynch's. Yet Big Fish also reminds us of the sweetness that infuses films such as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, whose heroes prefigure the quixotic aplomb of this latest Edward.
Burton, in any case, is a superb director of actors, and he gets terrific performances from a cast that also includes his girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter, in multiple roles. Most outstanding, not surprisingly, are Ewan MacGregor as the irrepressibly sunny young Edward and Albert Finney as his autumnal counterpart. And while much will surely be made of the father-son theme that links these actors with Billy Crudup's Will, the film's valorization of conjugal love is no less striking. The scene, late in the story, where the dying Edward sweeps his wife into the bathtub with him--two fish now in their own pond--has to be the most exquisitely tender moment in any recent American movie.
The film's other great theme, the transformative power of the imagination and storytelling, converges with its depiction of the South in ways that are at once eminently natural and intriguingly incongruous. For as much as oral tradition defines Southern culture, that culture here seems curiously removed from three of its key topics: race, politics and religion. Yet could that absence, especially in regards to the last, signal a deeper level of presence?
Certainly it's impossible to imagine that a Southern story symbolically centered on fish and submersion does not also concern Christ and baptism, or to put it more simply, redemption. And so it is: The same imaginative faculty that redeems the mundane facts of Edward's life, transmuting them into something magical and heroic, also gives us a South where, for example, churches are integrated prior to the Civil Rights era. What a grand joke on the world's dour literalists!
Yet as whimsically wondrous as Big Fish is, it also has an elegiac undertow. Its makers seem to realize that oral cultures like the South's are all endangered species when most people get their stories, bite-sized and homogenous, from uncaring electronic outlets. In that sense, true imaginative literature and movies like Big Fish are as archaic as the elderly Edward, and we should heed them for the same reason that Will must finally hear his father: To learn who we really are.
Comparing Big Fish and Cold Mountain is to confront the difference between the mythic and the epic. Where myths begin in some idyllic Golden Age--even one occurring in Ashton, Alabama--the epic muse famously tunes up by singing of the devastation of civilizations as once-proud as ancient Troy, or antebellum North Carolina.
Such destruction always bears the chill of terror and tragedy, but its rendition in Anthony Minghella's film of the acclaimed Charles Frazier novel carries extra shivers for North Carolinians. For the movie's wrenching grandeur lies in envisioning a North Carolina that now, mercifully, is almost unimaginable: a state gloriously pristine in its natural beauty, yet wracked by murder, cruelty, hunger, lawlessness and a chaos so profound that it might seem the entire world was about to end.
That this North Carolina comes across so powerfully in the movie of Cold Mountain is news I'm happy to report. I'll admit my initial skepticism. Minghella's previous effort at adapting a literary war epic, The English Patient, struck me as a singularly ham-fisted instance of celluloid grandiosity. Also, there was the bizarre and unhappy development that North Carolina was to be portrayed in Cold Mountain by Romania. (The film's press kit says that appropriate locations couldn't be found here, but that's Miramax's b.s. The real reason was, of course, money.)
As it turns out, Romania does a pretty good job in its unlikely role. (Granted, the Transylvanian Alps aren't exactly dead ringers for the Blue Ridge, but at least I didn't keep expecting Count Dracula to pop up instead of bloodthirsty Yankees.) Better still, Minghella, who also wrote the screenplay, directs with a greatly improved sense of narrative and visual fluency, getting top notch work out of a cast led by Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.
Unlike Frazier's book, the movie begins at the onset of battle, as Union soldiers dynamite and then overrun the Virginia position defended by Inman (Law) and his Confederate brethren. This scene of incendiary, hand-to-hand carnage lasts only a few minutes, but it's stunning enough to instantly establish the mind-numbing horror that Inman (he goes by one name) has been enduring for three years, and thus the reason that, after being hospitalized for a horrible throat wound suffered in this battle, he elects to head home, even at the risk of being shot as a deserter.
Inman, though, is being pulled as well as pushed back toward the western N.C. town of Cold Mountain. As an initial series of flashback shows, he met Ada Monroe (Kidman) just before the war began. She was a refined minister's girl from Charleston, he a mountain boy so reticent that he could barely speak to her. Their de facto courtship amounted to no more than a few brief conversations and one kiss, a fact that gives the story one of its most touching ironies: Inman and Ada's long struggle to reunite is driven less by knowledge of each other than by imagination.
Once their background is sketched in, Minghella remains in the present tense, cutting between Inman's danger-dogged trek across the entire breadth of North Carolina and Ada's efforts to keep body and soul together after her father's death. Both face ceaseless ordeals. While Inman's edgy encounters include a shamed preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a treacherous Good Samaritan (Giovanni Ribisi) and a lonely farm wife (Natalie Portman), Ada finds her entire community menaced by a predatory lawman (Ray Winstone) and his cutthroat cohorts.
Ada, however, at least has the benefit of a constant ally in Ruby (Zellweger), a rough-hewn roustabout who shows up looking for work and stays to teach her citified employer how to run a farm. Their partnership is as compelling as the post-war duet of Scarlet and Melanie in Gone with the Wind, and it occasions no end of spirited feistiness from Zellweger, whose gutsy, all-stops-out performance nicely complements Kidman's porcelain delicacy and Law's stoic determination.
Minghella deserves credit for the overall excellence provided not only by the cast but also by top-flight collaborators including cinematographer John Seale, production designer Dante Ferretti and legendary editor Walter Murch. Rather than an auteurist vision like Big Fish, Cold Mountain is a model of solid teamwork in the Hollywood studio tradition, one that brings to life an era characterized by both beauty and horror.
Ultimately, the film succeeds because it intelligently translates the extraordinary qualities of Frazier's story. For all its echoes of Homer, the Bible and other literary sources, this tale is as elemental as fire and snow, and includes a love story of transcendent power. Proving again the enduring hold the Civil War has on the American imagination, and on great Southern storytellers, Cold Mountain adds a cinematic triumph to Frazier's formidable literary success.