Cinema Signal:

Cold Mountain
the novel
by Charles Frazier

The book on which this film is based

. "Cold Mountain"

Writer-director Anthony Minghella adapted this romantic adventure from Charles Frazier's Civil War version of "The Odyssey" by Homer and assembled a superb cast topped by two of the best. Love separated by war evolves into two storylines with texture and detail and an ending that leaves one as cold as the mountain. Its vivid landscapes and powerful performances should inspire some critical success and, perhaps, academy attention. Strong literary appeal lends it stature but could limit the lines at the boxoffice.

Shortly after Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) came to the small North Carolina town of Cold Mountain to be with her aged father, preacher Monroe (Donald Sutherland), she's informed that a certain handsome carpenter in the town has been asking about her. Coquettishly and modestly -- anyone's dream of a refined young lady of the period -- she takes drinks to the crew working on the church roof top with particular attention being paid to Inman (Jude Law) the one-named, few worded, good looking suitor.

Slowly, a few encounters between them leads to what appears to be a strained acquaintance, but a seething brew of emotional interest is boiling and brewing in their chests. Under normal circumstances, these two would be headed for the altar before a few weeks were out, but these are not normal times. The boys of the Confederacy are itching for war against the Union. When it's declared, Inman and Ada meet to say goodbye, when a last-minute kiss becomes a promise and seals their fates.

With the war-age men gone, a band of opportunistic non-volunteers sets up a posse calling itself the Home Guard. Under the cloak of searching out and killing deserters, they tyranize the community with blood thirsty relish. They are led by Teague (Ray Winstone) whose primary purpose is to reclaim the land his family lost, a feat he hopes to accomplish with bullets.

Standing in for Penelope's suitors in "The Odyssey", Teague has his lecherous eye on the beautiful Ada, who is struggling alone on her land after her father died but with little skill at anything requiring practical know how. Her training has been for the drawing room in civilized society, but so long as she believes Inman is alive and will return to her she maintains her stoic independence.

As for Inman, after a devastating battlefield encounter in which he fights like a demon in a pit of death, rescues a friend and suffers injury, he decides he's had enough of war and deserts, starting an arduous journey back to Cold Mountain with nothing on his mind other than to survive and return to Ada. Much as Ulysses encountered demons and other life-threatening obstacles on his voyage back to his home in Ithaca, Inman, a determined figure in mountain garb, runs a similar gauntlet on his lengthy trek -- perhaps one or two too many as the 155 minute length of the film indicates.

His episodic adventures include a colorful preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman); a scheming farmer (Giovanni Ribisi) with a house full of over-amorous women; a war widow with survival needs (Natalie Portman); and a mountain woman healer (Eileen Atkins).

Law and Kidman, two of a small number of actors that have the capacity to crawl out of their own skins and effect the perfect mask of a created personna are the main drawing cards here even though their full creative range isn't drawn upon.

In his character's laconic way, Law's challenge is to express with few words what he's feeling internally, -- a charge he has no trouble fulfilling -- and in drawing our sympathy for a deserter, a man considered contemptible by the people of his time and place. Perhaps because he is an epic hero, or an anti-war symbol, he is somehow raised above such considerations, at least outside the Confederate states. (One wonders if this will play as well at a theatre in Mississippi). But, perhaps he may also be considered a symbol of many other deserters, farmers who were expert at shooting rabbits but had no taste for a battlefield.

Kidman grows her character as she evolves from a woman of tight restraint to the more capable hellfire maintaining an indestructible longing. She has no trouble realizing her strengths and weaknesses. "I know how to arrange flowers," she says, "but not how to grow them.

This is no "Road to Perdition" or "Artificial Intelligence" for Law; no "Moulin Rouge" or "The Hours" for Kidman -- in terms of the script's inherent opportunities. But they emit sufficient magnetism within the contexts of an episodic drama to hold you even when the story stretches might make you want to stretch, as the journey and the years drag on.

Renee Zellwegger exerts herself to make fun out of able-handed drifter Ruby Thewes, a handy sidekick role that injects vitality and over-broad comedy relief as she trains Ada for physical labor in order to revive the ranch. Brendan Gleeson adds Irish good humor and zest to Ruby's errant father Stobrod, a man who rues the faults of his early ways and labors to regain the affection of his estranged daughter. Donald Sutherland plays old and weary as the preacher whose heart simply stops beating, leaving an unprepared daughter to tend her acres. Eileen Atkins as cantankerous Maddy is nothing if not convincing while Portman widens the attainments of her prior roles. Charlie Hunnam is frightening as Teague's sociopathic enforcer.

The mood of the piece is firmly backed with a score partially influenced by folk music of the time with a few quite accurate renderings. Minghella and executive music producer T-Bone Burnett show considerable tastefulness in their selections of works created and performed by Alison Krause, Sting, Elvis Costello and actor Jack White. This is a CD that should fly and might become the surprise hit that "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" was. All other technical departments are covered superbly.

In "The Odyssey," Ulysses does reach Ithaca and his beloved Penelope. Inman is destined to do the same with Cold Mountain and Ada. But, love separated for such a lengthy time weakens the flame. Restrained passion becomes pointless devotion. And, then, in the resolution Minghella chose for his episodic journey, cruel poignancy wins out over satisfying fulfillment, leaving us chilled to the bone. This, and its somber, drawn out telling, mitigates the connection between the lovers and a picture with so much dimension, atmosphere and steely performances. In the end, employing Homer's story structure wasn't such a great idea. Mr. Minghella may find love at a distance appealing, but it's the audience that ends up distanced.

While it is likely to receive intellectual respectability for its literary parallel, as did Minghella's other tale of war separation, The English Patient, it falls short of his better-realized "The Talented Mr. Ripley", a psychological thriller that has the qualities classics are made of. This is a director who can tell a cinematic tale with impressive taste for high-calibre material in evocative period contexts, which makes him someone from whom to expect something closer to storytelling awe in our hearts and minds than he's given us here.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Love blooms before a war's separation

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