Charles Frazier's 1997 best seller, Cold Mountain, is The Odyssey compressed, Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge expanded to saga dimensions. As much as Inman aches to return to a woman he barely knew, but knew he loved, the novel's vivid prose needed to be turned into moving pictures. Paging Anthony Minghella, adapter-director of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In those films Minghella proved himself a poet of blinding sunlight and murky impulses. Now, on the darker, ruder landscape of 19th century North Carolina (though much of Cold Mountain was shot in Romania), he tells a story of the severest passion of a beautiful woman who learns strength, and a strong man who discovers beauty and won't let it go.
When Ada (Nicole Kidman) arrives in Cold Mountain with her preacher father (Donald Sutherland), her refinement startles the citizenry; they must reconfigure their notions of perfection. Inman (Jude Law) has never looked that high. His eye has been on the plow, the nail to be hammered. But Ada and the approach of war bring a clarity to his ambitions. He wants her heart, and she lets him pack it on his journey into battle.
Now Inman's and Ada's stories run on parallel tracks: he warring, getting wounded and walking homeward, she fighting to survive in a mean economic and political climate. A proper lady with few practical skills, Ada is saved by the arrival of the can-do mountain gal Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger). As Ada passes her Ruby Thewes days struggling to keep her farm from failing and the local bully Teague (Ray Winstone) from pressing his lurid attentions on her, Inman meets all manner of strangers good witches and bad, a rogue (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a young widow (Natalie Portman). Inman shows how fleeing a war can be an act of love, Ada how staying at home is an act of courage.
The grimly detailed, superbly staged Battle of the Crater the 1864 debacle that Minghella weaves into Frazier's plot reminds you that this is a Civil War movie. But of a blinkered nature: Where are the slaves? Ahem, where are the black folks? Minghella may be dodging the race issue (slavery is never mentioned), but he probably wants us to see the Confederacy both as one more lost cause worth fighting for, then fighting to get out of, and as a military metaphor for the impossible dream at the story's core one of rebellious love, against all odds, that is worth pursuing no matter how it ends.
The acting is full of satisfactions and surprises. Law has movie-star musk and the craft to fill his peasant garb with a heroic sensitivity. Kidman seems uncomfortable early on, but she takes strength from Ada's plight and grows steadily, literally luminous. Her sculptural pallor gives way to warm radiance in the firelight. Portman lends a tender ferocity to the widow aching for the presence the memory, really of a good man's body next to hers. As for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, voting is now officially closed; Zellweger should take it by acclamation.
Early in the film, Ada's father tells her, "I lost your mother after 22 months of marriage. It was enough for a lifetime." The feeling this movie engenders could last a while too. For Cold Mountain, no less than The Lord of the Rings, is a grand and poignant movie epic about what is lost in war and what's worth saving in life. It is also a rare blend of purity and maturity the year's most rapturous love story.