Romantic with a capital "R," Anthony Minghella's filmed take on Charles Frazier's bestselling Cold Mountain has pictorial heft to spare but is slow to engage through character. It seems all too easy to understand Minghella's film and the leading performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman without ever being truly moved by them, and yet, like the characters still standing in the end, persistent viewers will count their blessings.
Never boring but frequently disjointed, Cold Mountain begins with a dream-like alternating progression of memory and the steady march of war. Before we ever hear the cries of "We got our war!" Minghella gives it to us in spades with a recreation of the 1864 Siege of Petersburg, not described in Frazier's book. The sky turns a burnt red, the air and ground fill with dirt and powder and blood, and masses of soliders desperately wrestle with each other, sticking and shooting as they can through the literal and metaphoric mad haze of war. For the most part, Minghella--working with the great production designer Dante Ferretti and photographer John Seale--maintains a verisimilitude of production as he etches the civilian descent into mortal poverty in the south and a confederate soldier's desperation for home as the war turns hopeless.
Law plays that soldier (Inman) as Kidman's Ada tries to keep it together in their hometown: Cold Mountain, North Carolina. By a non-sequitur-ridden courtship, Minghella means to suggest their soulful connection, though there's something dull about the actor's chemistry until the heat generated by an interrupted one-day-stand makeout session preceding Law's marching orders. One might speculate that the love between these two longing souls stems more from the idealization of separation than from informed attraction between two people. Certainly, they have more in common after Inman's long Odyssey (with a capital "O") than they ever did before. Minghella mostly supplants Frazier's page-friendly "You've Got Mail" exchanges with a visual motif: the characters stare blankly out of photographs at each other.
Inman trudges through glorious, impassive nature, holding his aggressive neck wound and suffering picaresque adventures with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman's dissolute, practical-minded preacher. Ada's grip slips as she finds herself more profoundly alone than she expected, but the appearance of Renee Zellweger's drifting lifeforce Ruby renews Ada's hope. The invigorating warmth of companionship combats the solitude so clearly implied by "Cold Mountain."
Indeed, this is a story of coping mechanisms of people driven to their outer limits by hunger and solitude--for Ruby's estranged father (Brendan Gleeson), for example, music does the trick (soundtrack producing expert T-Bone Burnett makes the folksy selection here). When not serving as the object which makes the story run, Kidman fairly essays the hard, necessary transformation from belle to independent woman. If Zellweger rankles at first, scrunching up her face like Billy Idol, her fearless verve and injection of humor quickly endear her. Law's worlds-apart demeanor, suffused with intelligence and feeling blunted by hurt and lingering images of death, appropriately represents the type of Civil War soldier Frazier describes.
But Law's scrupulously low-key performance and the film's literary Miramaxocity risk embalming the story and seem at odds with Kidman's implausibly tenacious glamour and Zellweger's brash, lively turn. A story this cluttered with eventfulness--particularly, the meddling of Ray Winstone's self-styled executioner of deserters, backed up by an unrecognizable Charlie Hunnam's Evil Hollywood Albino #473--can only fail as a stylistic cousin of Terrence Malick, but neither can a story this serene, this traumatized, this jerkily paced be a Michael Curtiz picture (more's the pity). Still, editor Walter Murch earns his stripes with his sneaky resolution of the film's central concern, a seeming hurry-up after the wait. Cold Mountain may be stylistically incongruous at heart, but moment to moment, it can be one of the most flavorful films of the year.