Cold Mountain. Miramax presents a film written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Based on the book by Charles Frazier. Running time: 155 minutes. Rated R (for violence and sexuality/nudity). Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Aileen Atkins, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson, Charlie Hunnam, Ray Winstone, Donald Sutherland, Jack White.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain is a rather unconventional film, a love story in which the romance between the two main characters hardly seems like the point. When the two are finally reunited, we're happy for them, but the destination of the trip is less important (and less interesting) than the journey itself.

Inman (Jude Law) is a laborer living in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. He is a quiet man, content with his life of solitude. When Ada (Nicole Kidman) and her minister father (Donald Sutherland) move into Cold Mountain, he is instantly smitten. Ada is immediately attracted to Innman as well, and after only a few meetings they have fallen madly in love with each other. But they never get a chance to form a real relationship, because Inman is soon sent off to fight in the Civil War.

Inman is gone for several years, and Ada continues to hope for his return and send him letters. While in a hospital bed, Inman recieves a letter from Ada; "If you are fighting," it reads, "quit fighting. If you are marching, quit marching. Come back to me." And Inman does - he gets out of his bed, and sneaks away in the night, heading back to Cold Mountain. He treks through the wilderness, avoiding the army (he is a deserter, after all) and running into several interesting characters, including an adulterous preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a widowed mother (Natalie Portman).

Ada, meanwhile, is having trouble maintaining the farm after the death of her father. So Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), a strong-willed southern woman, is sent to help out. Upon arriving, the first thing Ruby does (other than berate Ada), is rip the head off of a troublesome rooster. Soon, the farm is nearing its former glory. But not all is well; the head of the local "home guards" (Ray Winstone, deliciously evil) has his eye on Ada and her land. Things continue to get worse when Ruby's father (Brendan Gleeson), another deserter, and his band of musicians (including a surprisingly good Jack White, of the "White Stripes") show up for a visit.

Interestingly enough for a love story, the relationship between Inman and Ada is never really fully developed. We can believe that they're in love, and Kidman and Law share a certain degree of chemistry, but there is very little presented to make us buy it completely. Having not read Charles Frazier's novel, I can't say whether it is the same there, but the film seems more interested in what happens to bring the two together than them actually being together. In a lesser film, this would have bothered me, but because the two individual stories are so good, all it does here is prevent Cold Mountain from being the masterpiece it could have been.

Jude Law has had a certain degree of mainstream success throughout his career, but it is work in Cold Mountain that should make him a truly bankable movie star. He never goes over-the-top to portray love or pain, but lets his face and eyes do most of the work. Nicole Kidman is good, but not exemplary or Oscar-worthy (although she'll probably get nominated). Renée Zellweger steals the movie, with an energetic and enjoyable performance that fully develops Ruby into a person, rather than a caricature. If I was forced to list who will win Oscars next year, Zellweger's name would be next to Supporting Actress.

The actors that Law runs into give performances that range from cameos to fully-formed, but all of them do great work. Philip Seymour Hoffman is hilarious as the philandering holy man, and Giovanni Ribisi is entertaining. Natalie Portman is simply wonderful as the sad mother, capturing every nuance of her character in even the short time she has on screen.

Cinematographer John Seale has created a gorgeous motion picture, with lush landscapes and beautiful imagery. Nearly everything about Cold Mountain is good, and it all adds up to make a great movie, and one that will undoubtably catch the Academy's attention come February. Too bad the love story isn't as interesting as it could be; if it was, this may have been the single best movie of the year, rather than just one of the best.

© 2003 Matt Noller