Opening with a powerful staging of the 1864 Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, the story details the journey home of injured Confederate soldier Inman (Law). He goes AWOL, determined to get back to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and the woman he loves (Kidman). The film's episodic progress alternates between Inman's long trek, traversing a minefield of sex, violence and duplicity, and Ada's life in Cold Mountain, where Home Guardsman Teague (Ray Winstone) and his murderous minions terrorize the community. Tough cookie Ruby (Zellweger, overdoing the quirky shtick) arrives to help Ada, an orphaned minister's daughter schooled in literature but clueless to practical matters. Ada thrives, as does her farm, under the bossy direction of Ruby, whose feisty independence stems from a troubled relationship with her fiddler father (Brendan Gleeson). Inman's encounters, meanwhile, stack up like a series of ostentatious scenes for actors, Hoffman faring worst. The notable exception is Eileen Atkins' simple turn as a wise old crone. And for the second time this year, after "The Italian Job," Donald Sutherland has a disappointingly brief stint as the leading lady's father.
Law brings a quiet fierceness to his role, his deepening gaze reflecting the horrors Inman has seen. Kidman is breathtakingly radiant as Ada, and while it's easy to see why Inman risks his life to get back to someone he's kissed only once, there's little dramatic pull to the matter of their reunion. Kidman gives it her all, but the filmmakers are too much in thrall to her beauty: Ada's evolution from pampered to self-sufficient reads more like a change in style, from Jamesian petticoats to high-fashion black. Beyond this, the two would-be lovers continually remind themselves, and us, that they barely know each other--as if this were an extraordinary circumstance and not a Hollywood convention.
Gleeson and Jack White of the White Stripes make on-screen contributions to the fine roots-music soundtrack, and there's a terrific scene of exultant church singing--one of the details of period verisimilitude that transcend the overall feel of set-designed history. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Eileen Atkins, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Giovanni Ribisi, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Kathy Baker, Jena Malone, James Gammon and Jack White. Directed and written by Anthony Minghella. Produced by Sydney Pollack, William Horberg, Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa. A Miramax release. Period drama. Rated R for violence and sexuality. Running time: 152 min