Anthony Minghella's film of Cold Mountain, the best-selling Civil War novel by Charles Frazier, is half a movie for the price of one. But fortunately that half is quite satisfying. Once Minghella gets through an hour of reticent glances between his chaste lovers, he settles upon a story that moves back and forth between their separate lives: the woman at home in North Carolina, tending a farm and waiting to learn the fate of her heart, and the man wandering in the wilderness, trying to return to the tranquil life he knew.
The woman is Ada (Nicole Kidman), the daughter of a South Carolina preacher (Donald Sutherland) who moves slightly north to the titular Cold Mountain because the air is better for his ailing lungs. She's a well-educated girl who knows piano, literature, the constellations and how to press flowers. But she doesn't know how to grow them, and she certainly knows nothing about love.
The man is Inman (Jude Law), taciturn to his last wavy hair, a builder and farmer who doesn't much care for the thought of war, especially in light of what they'll be defending (the rights of rich men to own slaves). But off to war he goes, where he survives an 1864 battle that begins with an explosive surprise Northern attack on the Southern position, then ends badly after the cavern created by the explosion turns the advancing field of Northern soldiers into sitting ducks.
This roughly five-minute battle scene -- which Minghella presents as a horrific frenzy that leads to a holocaust of bodies piled high -- is all that made me not want to walk out of Cold Mountain. How, I wondered, can a smart director, clearly committed to making serious movies (like The English Patient -- which, for the record, I can't stomach), not see how over-scored, over-wrought and insipid a movie he's made?
But then things change. Inman gets shot, and when he receives a beautiful letter from Ada, he deserts his sickbed -- and the Rebel army -- to return home to her. Along the way he encounters an absorbing ethnography of Southern life: a lecherous preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who's about to kill the black girl he got pregnant, a Judas hillbilly (Giovanni Ribisi) and his extended clan of horny womenfolk, a delicate war widow (Natalie Portman) who just wants someone to hold her.
Meanwhile, back home, Ada's life (her father is now dead) changes considerably under the brash tutelage of Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a swaggering country gal who's every bit as self-sufficient around Ada's farm as Ada is educated and useless. Together with a nearby widow (Kathy Baker), they form a sort of proto-feminist working farm that prefigures the 20th-century wartime factory economics of Rosie and her riveters.
What emerges from this is a portrait not of a particularly dull love story, but of the more universal human need for community and peace. Minghella doesn't try to re-negotiate his story's particular war, choosing instead to reflect on the practice in general. The women especially seem to have a sense of things, and while their ways of expressing it most often feel written and banal -- Zellweger: "This world won't stand long. God won't let it." Portman: "Take metal out of this world, every blade, every gun" -- the movie's overall anti-war sentiment feels authentic enough.
So, too, do its snapshots of 19th-century backwoods Southern life. There's a pleasing gothic mysticism in the ambiance and images during the good hour of Cold Mountain, as if Minghella, who is English, adapts Frazier's novel with a foreigner's curious eye. He's careful to show atrocities on both sides: the Northerners who rape and the Southerners who, on a vigilante search for deserters, wipe out virtually an entire family of their own neighbors, leaving only a brutalized mother alive among the bodies of her executed husband and sons.
The acting in Cold Mountain is generally effective despite the constraints of a Hollywood production. Hoffman, the compelling Everyman of American cinema, is electric from the moment he appears, hovering over a ravine with a limp body in his arms. Zellweger's Ruby is very often too much, but in a way that you can enjoy well enough before it annoys. Kidman has become Tragedy in human form, and Ada adds another historic figurine to her poignant panoply. Only Law feels entirely miscast: No amount of training can make him sound like he belongs in gray, so his voice in Cold Mountain is distracting in an almost indiscernible way, not like an Englishman who can't master an American Southern accent, but rather like a very good actor who's just a little off this time.
"God is weary of being called down on both sides of an argument," said Ada's preacher father, in a line that resonates clear into our own 21st-century excursion into Iraq. Don't get me wrong: Cold Mountain is not political. Minghella isn't that kind of director. He tells love stories, and he's never done it better than in his delightful ghost movie, Truly Madly Deeply. In Cold Mountain, he still gets stuck on affairs of the heart when he has so much better stuff to work with. But for an hour at least, he works with it.