It isn't hard to understand why some people might find Cold Mountain, well, cold.
Like Gone With the Wind, it's a Civil War-era epic. But unlike that 1939 classic, the new film doesn't serve up the sweet, honeysuckle romance of the Old South.
Based on the prize-winning Charles Frazier novel, Cold Mountain is a more austere production. And it's a movie that asks you to make an imaginative leap or two.
Even though the heroes are Southerners, that seems accidental. They are people blown around by the winds of a war they cannot understand. At the center of the movie (which opens today) is a love story. It's a passionate one and, at the same time, superficially chilly.
When we first encounter them, the quiet, strong-jawed Inman (Jude Law) and the lovely, well-bred Ada (Nicole Kidman) are only just getting to know each other. Inman's dignified shyness and the rigid social forms of the day keep the pair from moving too fast.
Then, all at once, Inman is called off to war. Just moments before he leaves, he and Ada find one another and share a sudden, desperate embrace. Will they ever see each other again?
Much of Cold Mountain shows what happens after a war-battered Inman attempts to find his way home to Ada. We follow his trek across hundreds of miles as he tries to avoid both Yankee soldiers and the Confederate forces that would shoot him as a deserter.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Ada is alone and devastated. Lacking the skills to take care of herself, this delicate lady seems on the verge of collapse. Fortunately, help arrives in the form of Ruby (Renee Zellweger), a strong and resourceful drifter who prods Ada into learning how to do what must be done. Whatever else happens in Cold Mountain, we never forget that Inman and Ada love each other, or, at least, that they believe that they do. It's that promise of love that helps Ada to survive and keeps Inman moving toward her. The emotions unleashed can be powerful. Still, since Inman and Ada are mostly apart, you don't usually witness the expression of their feelings. If you're on the movie's wavelength, that only makes the situation more poignant. If you're not, you could wonder where the romance is.
Taking his cue from Frazier, British writer-director Anthony Minghella expects you to make the effort to enter the minds of these characters. And he refuses to fall back on cliches to help you along.
Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) appears, for example, to have little interest in those moldy notions of a gallant Confederacy that are so reassuring to some. Minghella doesn't have much use for Yankees, either.
In Cold Mountain, war is a crime whose victims and perpetrators are often the same. What makes Inman, Ada and Ruby heroes for Minghella is that they attempt to exist outside the war.
Not that anyone really can.
In his first time out in a major starring role, Law does fairly well. He has the clear, sharp eyes of a hero and the darkened soul of an antihero.
If he sometimes seems a bit embarrassed by the sincerity of Inman's emotions, that's not too big a problem. After all, Inman is supposed to be shy. Law matches up well with Kidman, who, in film after film, displays an actor's intelligence that is always somehow surprising. She finds just the right half-proud, half-ashamed tone to play the scene in which Ada confesses to Inman that, when being photographed, she has never been able to hold a smile. "I don't know how to do that," she says, tellingly.
Not everyone will appreciate the shrewdness of Zellweger's performance as Ruby, a chatterbox who sounds as if she's just escaped from a road-show production of Annie Get Your Gun. It's a hilarious turn with a serious point: Ruby has constructed a leathery mask to conceal the depth of her pain. You would think it might become distracting that so many of the smaller roles are filled with actors of stature. Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Ray Winstone and Brendan Gleeson all pop up.
In fact, sometimes it is distracting, but only at first.
Soon, the reasons they have achieved that stature assert themselves, and their performances carry you away. Especially engaging is Hoffman as a straying minister whose constant air of dishevelment helps you understand his indiscretions, without, of course, excusing them. With so many characters, locations and emotions swirling
around Cold Mountain, it's a tribute to the rich cinematography of John Seale (The English Patient, The Perfect Storm) that the look of the film is both varied and unifying. Even visually, the production manages to suggest the complexity, depth and intensity of its themes.
Underneath the movie's cold surface, Cold Mountain turns out to be a volcano.