Cold Mountain is a love story set against the turmoil of the Civil War. Nicole Kidman is Ada, the proper daughter of a reverend (Donald Sutherland) whose failing health makes the move to the title location necessary. Ada becomes smitten with Inman (Jude Law), a laborer working near the farm. Inman doesn't say much, is, in fact, teased by his co-workers for his silence, but all Ada and Inman need are a few moments of intense eye contact, and they're helplessly in love.
Their courtship is interrupted when war breaks out, and Inman joins the fighting on the side of the confederates. The lovers keep in touch through a series of romantic letters, and after one battle too many leaves the young soldier disillusioned with war and yearning all the more for the comfort of his true love's arms, he deserts his company and begins a long trek home, a destination Nicole is confident he'll reach after seeing a vision of him doing just that.
Except for some fine battle sequences, much of Cold Mountain is fairly tedious as it shifts from Inman's journey to Ada's patient wait for his return. Then two supporting characters are introduced and the movie springs to life.
The first is Ruby, a scraggly neighbor played by Renee Zellweger who materializes to help Ada with the farm chores. Pouty-lipped and ill-mannered, this girl has lots of gumption and handles things like twisting the neck off a chicken that the more ladylike Ada is loathe to do. At first, Zellweger's performance reeks of ham. She acts like Foghorn Leghorn from one of the old Warner Bros. cartoons. As the story progresses, Zellweger settles down, shakes off some of the more exaggerated mannerisms and delivers a fine performance, the best in the film.
If Zellweger provides the much needed life in Kidman's episodes, Philip Seymour Hoffman does the same for Jude Law. As a seedy man of the cloth whom Inman encounters just as the reverend is preparing to drown a black woman whom he has impregnated, Hoffman bursts off the screen with all the aggression Law lacks and provides some much needed amusement. He doesn't stay around long, but like Zellweger, he gives the film a burst of energy that the film thankfully retains from that point on.
There are many fine episodes, most memorably a heart wrenching interlude between Inman and a young mother widowed by the war. Kathy Baker is very affecting in her brief appearance here. But the movie's problem is that the supporting characters are far more interesting than the leads. Kidman and Law are fine, and there is something touching about Ada and Inman's devotion to each other, but since their great love is meant to be established in some brief, non-verbal scenes that fail to adequately do the trick, their relationship lacks the weight it needs to spark the desired emotional reaction. It leaves us feeling aloof from the pair, rather than deeply involved in their plight.
If Cold Mountain is not quite the epic it seemingly aspires to be, it still works well enough. It's beautiful to look at, the acting is all together fine, and the music is nice. But with a little more warmth at its center, it might have been a classic.
© 2003 Brian W. Fairbanks