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(2003) (Jude Law, Nicole Kidman) (R)

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Drama: A Civil War confederate goes AWOL so that he can return to the woman whose love for him is the only thing keeping her going through life.
It's 1861 and Ada Monroe (NICOLE KIDMAN) and her preacher father (DONALD SUTHERLAND) have arrived in Cold Mountain, North Carolina from Charleston. Although local man Teague (RAY WINSTONE) isn't pleased to see them, the likes of Esco (JAMES GAMMON) and Sally Swanger (KATHY BAKER) are, while carpenter W.P. Inman (JUDE LAW) takes an instant liking to Ada.

The feeling is mutual and the two become something of an item, but with the state seceding from the Union, Inman sets off with his Confederate comrades for war. The two correspond through letters, but the years pass, Ada's father dies and Inman is wounded. When he's read one of Ada's letters begging him to come home, the soldier decides to go AWOL.

He then sets out on a long and perilous journey where he meets the likes of Veasey (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN), a disgraced minister; Junior (GIOVANNI RIBISI), a volatile backwoods man; Sara (NATALIE PORTMAN), a war widow with a young infant; and recluse Maddy (EILEEN ATKINS) who briefly cares for him.

Back in Cold Mountain, Teague has assumed control with the aid of Bosie (CHARLIE HUNNAM), and tries to convince Ada that she should be with him. Despite her poverty she refuses, putting all of her hope in Inman's return. Meanwhile, she gets help from stranger Ruby (RENEE ZELLWEGER), who offers to work the land in exchange for free room and board.

Although she claims her father is dead, he soon arrives in the form of Stobrod (BRENDAN GLEESON) who's traveling with fellow musicians Pangle (ETHAN SUPLEE) and Georgia (JACK WHITE). As they must deal with Teague's search for deserters, Inman tries to avoid capture so that he can return to Cold Mountain and the woman he hopes he still loves.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
There's the old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When that involves newfound love, it can drive people to unexpected acts. Such is the case in "Cold Mountain," director Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charlie Frazier's best-selling novel of the same name.

In it, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman star as some mid-19th century characters whose budding relationship is interrupted by that pesky little thing known as the American Civil War. While Kidman's character, Ada, remains home, Law's Inman heads off into battle with his Confederate comrades. As the conflict and Father Time exact tolls on all involved, love turns out to be the driving force that keeps her going and causes him to go AWOL to return to her.

Like Minghella's other romance, "The English Patient," this is best described as a war-related "chick flick." Of course, it's more complicated than that as it combines those sorts of elements with ones from the likes of "The Red Badge of Courage" and even Homer's "The Odyssey."

Told out of sequence - although that storytelling technique lessens as the two and a half hour story unfolds - the film alternates between showing the two characters together and then in their separate lives. That, couple with Inman's Odysseus-like journey home from the front to his titular home town, obviously gives the film somewhat of a disjointed and episodic feel.

It's not a completely debilitating flaw by any means, but it certainly messes with the some of the film's dramatic and romantic momentum. What it does allow is for Inman to meet a wide assortment of Homeric characters along his travels.

Although that keeps the proceedings interesting, it also serves as a distraction considering the name list of performers who appear in the brief roles. With the likes of Natalie Portman ("Where the Heart Is," the last two "Star Wars" films), Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Almost Famous," "Boogie Nights"), Giovanni Ribisi ("Lost in Translation," "Saving Private Ryan") and others showing up one after another, viewers will be apt to let their minds wander regarding who might next appear.

Law's character isn't alone in such regards, however, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson ("28 Days Later," "Gangs of New York"), Kathy Baker ("The Cider House Rules," "Edward Scissorhands") and Renee Zellweger ("Chicago," "Bridget Jones's Diary") showing up in Ada's life.

A bigger problem, at least in my opinion, is that the plot's driving force - the love the two characters share for each other - isn't developed enough to make it completely believable. While the sudden love and love conquers all angle will obviously appeal to the film's target audience, I just didn't buy it. That results in two problems, the first being the hard to believe notion that these two characters - who barely know each other and have shared just one brief kiss - would be so committed to reunite.

Yes, the times were desperate, but a simple tweak in Minghella's screenplay involving making them know each other longer or even be engaged or married would have fixed that problem. The second stems from the fact that if one doesn't buy that setup, their emotional involvement in the characters - and hoping they'll get back together - is severely lessened. As a result, some or many viewers might find the title symbolic in terms of eliciting an emotional response.

That said, the performances are all good. Kidman ("The Hours," "The Others") and Law ("Road to Perdition," "Gattaca") exhibit the proper sort of period touches and - plot problems aside - are easy to watch and believable in their roles.

Portman is good in her brief turn as a war widow, while Gleeson hits the right notes - literally and figuratively - as an estranged father and musician. Ray Winstone ("Last Orders," "Nil By Mouth") and Charlie Hunnam ("Nicholas Nickleby," "Abandon") appear as the necessary villains who make Ada's and others lives a living hell.

It's Zellweger, however, who excels in her role as a somewhat simple but resourceful and hardy woman who rescues Ada from her domestic plight. When I first spotted her, I had that "oh no" feeling (partly due to the above factor and not being sure if she could pull off the part). Much to my surprise, she's terrific in the role and could very well earn some award nominations for her work.

As with the director's other films, this one looks fabulous. The efforts by cinematographer John Seale ("The English Patient," "Rain Man"), production designer Dante Ferretti ("Gangs of New York," "Interview with a Vampire") and costume designer Ann Roth ("The Hours," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") are top-notch, while composer Gabriel Yared's ("The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") score at least makes up for some of the cool, emotional detachment.

Overall, I thought the film was decent and its Odyssey-like structure certainly keeps it interesting. It will no doubt play well to diehard romance aficionados and there's enough action to satisfy those who may be dragged along to see it.

I just wish I cared more about the outcome and that the film as a whole was as good as its various individual moments. As a result, "Cold Mountain" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 3, 2003 / Posted December 25, 2003

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