- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The English filmmaker Anthony Minghella may have a weakness for yarns about lovelorn soldiers who soak up prodigious punishment while struggling to reunite with sweethearts. This form of misfortune dominated the flashbacks in his Academy Award-winning tearjerker of 1996, “The English Patient.” Derived from a Booker Prize-winning novel that Mr. Minghella transposed elegantly to the screen, the movie used World War II as a backdrop to tragic passion between glamorous sophisticates, played by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas.

A similar quest sputters and slogs along in “Cold Mountain,” a prestige groaner derived from a National Book Award-winning novel by Charles Frazier, who evoked the Civil War as a grisly, sinister obstacle to survival and true love. Jude Law is cast as a Confederate soldier named Inman, a veteran of battles at Fredericksburg, Sharpsburg and Petersburg who goes absent without leave from a military hospital in Richmond in the closing months of 1864. His destination is a hometown in the mountains of far western North Carolina, where he hopes to find a transplanted Charleston, S.C., belle, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), whom he had begun to court as war was declared in the spring of 1861.

In certain respects it’s easier to warm to the long-distance heartaches of Inman and Ada, who share attachments to the same locale as well as an unconsummated passion for each other. Mr. Fiennes’ Hungarian aristocrat and Miss Scott Thomas’ adulterous Englishwoman had some sticky allegiance problems once the Third Reich and the British Empire were at war. Inman and Ada are a more humble, compatibly naive romantic match, stymied erotically to a degree that never inhibited the lovers of “The English Patient.”

Inman and Ada have loneliness and frustration in common. They also confront identical menaces as the hero nears Cold Mountain. A depraved Home Guard posse, bossed by Ray Winstone as a brawny, ever-expedient wretch called Teague, revels in coldblooded murder. The movie begins by visualizing a battle so appalling — Petersburg in the aftermath of the demolition that created an enormous crater in the Confederate trenches — that Inman’s perilous farewell to arms, motivated in part by a pleading letter from Ada, is a case of desertion that appears well-earned and self-explanatory.

Unfortunately, the Petersburg trauma is dissipated by the story’s abject dependence on Teague’s recurrent, consistently repulsive depredations. It’s as if Mr. Minghella feared the plot would stall unless the Teague bunch turned up for atrocity encores.

Alternating between scenes of the separated Inman and Ada in the present and flashbacks of their awkward courtship, Mr. Minghella bungles the task of keeping their struggles in effective counterpoint. Even his rhythm is off: episodes feel abrupt and shortchanged, especially every cliffhanging situation that threatens Inman.

Readers of the novel will anticipate the welcome gusto that Renee Zellweger brings to the movie when she enters as the rambunctious farmhand Ruby, who volunteers to rescue delicate, dreamy Ada from solitude and ineptitude by instructing her in the rigors and rewards of hard work in the interests of sheer survival.

While Ruby whips the neglected Monroe farm into shape, the movie snaps out of its gathering befuddlement. It’s also fun to watch Miss Zellweger act rings around Miss Kidman so soon after last year’s Academy Awards, which favored the latter. And not undeservedly. In “The Human Stain” and now “Cold Mountain,” Miss Kidman seems to be backpedaling in the direction of woeful frailty. Unfortunately, Ruby is not a picture-saver as well as a farm-saver. Miss Zellweger begins to border on monotony as the movie keeps postponing the big reunion and consorting with precursors of the backwoods’ predators from “Deliverance.”

Cold comfort awaits at Cold Mountain. Despite working with many of the same collaborators who made “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” look so accomplished, Anthony Minghella gets his characters stuck in expository ruts in the early going and can’t extricate them in subsequent episodes.

*1/2

TITLE: “Cold Mountain”

RATING: R (Occasional profanity, graphic violence, sexual candor and vulgarity; nudity and simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Anthony Minghella. Screenplay by Mr. Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier. Cinematography by John Seale. Production design by Dante Ferretti. Costume design by Ann Roth. Editing by Walter Murch. Music by Gabriel Yared.

RUNNING TIME: 153 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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