Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” is a beautifully controlled movie about chaos. The subject, the Civil War, may seem distant, but Minghella makes it feel as close as the latest news from Iraq.
Closely based on Charles Frazier’s prize-winning 1997 novel, Minghella’s script follows two would-be lovers, Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman), who are separated at the beginning of the war, just as they realize their attraction to each other.
They spend the next three years dreaming of a reunion, as she loses her father (Donald Sutherland) and her fortune and learns to work with a pragmatic tomboy, Ruby (Renee Zellweger), on their North Carolina farm. At the same time, Inman loses whatever illusions he had about the nature of the Confederate cause.
By 1864, their mountain community has deteriorated into a lethal war zone, patrolled by soldiers and mercenaries who behave like psychopaths, using the war to justify theft, rape and the murders of innocents. Determined to find Ada, Inman becomes a deserter and returns to the dangerous ruin that home has become.
This outline may suggest Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which also inspired the Coen brothers’ recent Depression saga, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” While the story of a warrior’s much-anticipated homecoming is certainly familiar, Frazier added several levels of irony, beginning with the fact that Inman and Ada barely know each other when they make their good-byes.
Their first and possibly last kiss becomes the basis for a fantasy that sustains them through years of deprivation and cruelty. Cutting back and forth between the pre-war period and the 1864 scenes, Minghella deftly creates a sense of anticipation as well as an awareness of disastrous folly in the making.
The cruel realities of warThe war scenes are especially fresh and shocking. Minghella’s approach to battlefield heroics couldn’t be less like, for instance, Edward Zwick’s treatment of them in “The Last Samurai.” The scenes of physical conflict in the two films are almost equally bloody, but Zwick focuses on codes of honor, the glory of battle. Minghella and his excellent cinematographer, John Seale, present war as a meat-grinder that inevitably affects behavior far from the battlefield.
The idea of civilization almost becomes a lost cause in the course of “Cold Mountain,” though Minghella allows for moments when characters share an epiphany or express what’s left of their love of life. Even as the war arrives at their front porch, Ada and Ruby and their recently widowed neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker) enjoy a nighttime walk as Ada looks at the stars and points out the constellations.
Minghella clearly prizes such gestures, and so do his actors. There isn’t a weak performance here. Zellweger makes the most of her scene-stealing entrance, Eileen Atkins dominates a remarkable episode about an old woman who helps Inman, while Kidman and Law are always compelling as a young couple whose passion is delayed.
The film does leave a nagging sense of roles that might have been larger and scenes that might have played longer if the 154-minute running time had been extended (Sutherland's role carries much more weight in the book). It’s a rare epic that makes you long for more, but then that’s why DVDs were created.
John Hartl is the film critic of MSNBC.com