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Movie review: 'Cold Mountain'

2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Anthony Minghella makes beautiful movies and "Cold Mountain," alas, is no exception. This Civil War epic romance is exquisitely shot, lovingly designed and populated with talented name actors.

In terms of pedigree and sheer, lush filmmaking, the movie has class written all over it. And that's part of the problem.

Minghella has specialized in transferring formidable books to the screen ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), and Charles Frazier's Civil War tale may be the director's biggest challenge. The novel follows two stories simultaneously: Inman, an injured Confederate soldier, walking away from his troops to encounter an "Odyssey's" worth of adventures on his way home to North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains; and Ada, the woman waiting for him, trying to keep her farm running after her father's death.

What lingers from Frazier's novel isn't the plot but your immersion into the landscapes as well as the characters' internal worlds, communicated largely in letters that rarely reach their destinations. The novel, like Inman's journey, is a slow march toward peace in a country wracked by war.

Minghella takes an appropriately sober tone as he unfurls his film version of "Cold Mountain," adding a lavishly mounted battle scene to the opening to give a visceral sense of the war's horrors. This set piece is a stunner, introducing us to Inman (Jude Law) and his comrades in the trenches before setting the orange sky ablaze in explosions and close-up fighting that turns the ground into a tragic pudding of blood and mud.

Too pristine, unrealistic

You can't help but applaud the skill involved in composing this sequence, and there's the rub: For the movie to approach the novel's impact, it would have to convince you that you're experiencing actual people's lives, not admiring a work of art.

Law does a fine job of shrinking into his role without discarding his charisma. His Inman is somewhat opaque, but you believe he's a laconic man whose feelings are expressed more through simple actions than articulate discourses.

As Ada, however, Nicole Kidman never sheds her movie-star skin, even though she demonstrated what an effective character actress she can be in "The Hours." Ada, like the movie, is just too pristine: Even after months of roughing it, her skin remains porcelain and ageless, her blond locks ready for a shampoo commercial.

Granted, the character is meant to be out of her element, a belle who plays piano on the back of a truck, a lady in a time and place that have little use for high-toned manners. But even as Ada must descend from her pedestal to keep her farm from crumbling, she still seems to hover above the action without getting her hands truly dirty.

Most of the grunt work is provided by Renee Zellweger's Ruby, a rough-hewn drifter who arrives to take charge of whipping the farm into shape. She's what comes closest to comic relief, a rootin' tootin' go-getter who'd be at home in "Annie Get Your Gun" or "Mama's Family."

Her story grows stronger as it goes along, particularly when her ne'er-do-well father Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson) shows up having been transformed by the music he plays on his fiddle (alongside fellow musicians played by Ethan Suplee and the White Stripes' Jack White). But Zellweger is so durned plucky that Ruby verges on being a shtick figure.

Like the exquisite but cold "The English Patient," Minghella envisions "Cold Mountain" as an epic love story in wartime, though the compelling twist here is that Inman and Ada barely know each other. The extended flashbacks detail their tentative, charged courtship before war breaks out and Inman must leave.

So Ada and Inman are not seeking to regain what they had. Their romance lies completely in front of them, and its promise amid such darkness is what keeps them going.

War's brutality

The most immediate danger facing most of the characters is the Confederate Home Guard, which is hunting and killing deserters -- that is, any male who isn't fighting or in the Home Guard. On Cold Mountain the brutal Teague (Ray Winstone), who has been shunned by Ada, leads the search-and-destroy mission with an especially deadly young accomplice, Bosie (Charlie Hunnam of "Nicholas Nickleby"), who looks albino and thus, in movie shorthand, must be vicious.

When Teague carries out an attack on some of Ada's neighbors, you're shaken by the violence, but you also can't help but notice how artfully the blood seeps into the white sheets hanging in the breeze.

Inman's journey carries most of the movie's tension, as he must venture through woods or across lakes to avoid the Home Guard. Some of these episodes are emotionally potent, particularly his encounter with a single mom played by Natalie Portman (though the use of a distressed baby raised my hackles).

But Minghella makes the distancing decision to pepper Inman's travels with what could be an indie "Hollywood Squares" roster. As Inman moves from Philip Seymour Hoffman, who's darkly funny as a disgraced minister, to Jena Malone as a girl with a boat, to a typically twitchy Giovanni Ribisi as a shady backwoodsman with a brood of sex-starved women (the sirens of this "Odyssey"), you wonder which recognizable actor will pop up next.

The all-star cast, which also features Donald Sutherland as Ada's father and Kathy Baker as an anti-war neighbor, may boost the movie's profile, but it distracts you from being fully transported.

Another possible factor: Here's an English filmmaker (Minghella) directing an Australian (Kidman) and an Englishman (Law) in the leads, with an Irishman (Gleeson) and another Englishman (Winstone) in major supporting roles in an American Civil War tale filmed in Romania. Perhaps none of that should matter -- and some of these elements work just fine -- but the result is something that just doesn't feel authentic.

The ending, as in the book, ties up everything too neatly, but then the whole movie is gift-wrapped.

"Cold Mountain"
Written and directed by Anthony Minghella; based on the novel by Charles Frazier; photographed by John Seale; edited by Walter Murch; production designed by Dante Ferretti; music by Gabriel Yared; produced by Sydney Pollack, William Horberg, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa. A Miramax Films release; opens Thursday. Running time: 2:30. MPAA rating: R (violence, sexuality).
Inman .................. Jude Law
Ada Monroe ............. Nicole Kidman
Ruby Thewes ............ Renee Zellweger
Rev. Monroe ............ Donald Sutherland
Teague ................. Ray Winstone
Stobrod ................ Brendan Gleeson

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