Faithful to a fault to Charles Frazier's best-selling Civil War novel, Anthony Minghella's likable Cold Mountain—for all its shockingly effective opening depiction of the infamous 1864 siege of Petersburg, Virginia—is less a war film than a chronicle of the collapse of civil society that so often follows. Like Frazier's book, the picture is framed as a road movie with a love story folded into it. While recovering from a neck wound sustained in that decisive battle, a Confederate soldier named Inman (Jude Law), like so many of his fellow soldiers, deserts and begins the long cross-country trek home on foot. Braving a savage vigilante Home Guard and many other dangers, he heads for his native North Carolina, where he hopes to find Ada, the sweetheart he met just before he enlisted, waiting for him. Law is better than you might imagine a young English hipster might be at portraying a Southerner. Stumbling along, his handsome eyes dulled by the sight of too much death, Inman is the embodiment of a man all but destroyed by war.
Frazier is no sentimentalist: The novel's most prominent figure is not either of the lovers but nature itself, a dark, implacable force to be respected and constantly fought. Minghella's picture, by contrast, is bathed in the same golden glow that enveloped his other war picture, The English Patient, from which he's brought across almost his entire crew, including cinematographer John Seale and editor Walter Murch. Cold Mountain's most prominent—and least convincing—character is played by Nicole Kidman, likely the last model Frazier had in mind when he created Ada, an aloof, raven-haired Charleston intellectual without a flirtatious bone in her body, who nonetheless knows love when she sees it, and goes for it. Kidman minces into view trailing a mane of long, blond curls, her eyes demurely downcast and her button mouth curled into a kittenish simper that rivals Vivien Leigh's famous moue in Gone With the Wind.
All of which may account for the low emotional wattage in what ought to be a soaring romance. Minghella first made his name with the small but immensely satisfying Truly Madly Deeply, and by his own account he's an old-fashioned movie romantic and not very interested in war stories. Yet by far the most stunning scenes in Cold Mountain are its violent encounters. As Minghella's canvas has grown larger, his emotional register has grown fainter. I for one was baffled by the huge success of The English Patient, in which Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas generated about as much heat as a couple of dead lizards. Cold Mountain does little better. Indeed, it takes Natalie Portman, as a young widow with a baby who takes Inman into her shack, to work up a little chemistry. By the time this wandering Ulysses arrives home to his Penelope, who's fetchingly tricked out in a man's suit, he seems almost too tired for the obligatory sex scene. Cold Mountain chugs along placidly until it finally fizzles out with a warm and fuzzy picnic on a lovely summer day. I swear I heard Julie Andrews, yodeling in the background.
Cold Mountain was written and directed by Anthony Minghella, adapted from the novel by Charles Frazier. Opens countywide on Dec. 25.