The biggest problem with Cold Mountain, director Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's much-lauded novel, is that, despite the grandiose setting -the battle between the North and South in 19th-century America-there's nothing grandiose about the movie's themes. At the center of the film is a love story, and that's fine. But at the edges ... nothing, aside from weak anti-war and anti-heroic sentiment. Rather than this focusing the romance, the story achieves a cold, airless atmosphere that sucks much of the life out of what should be a much more involving tale. Also problematic is a rating that reflects not only violent battle scenes but several scenes of graphic sexuality as well.
Cold Mountain (rated R) loosely adapts The Odyssey to the story of W.P. Inman (Jude Law), a wounded Confederate deserter attempting to return home to his one true love, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman). As Inman struggles back to Cold Mountain, N.C., meeting various odd and threatening characters along the way, Ada too struggles to survive on the farm left to her by her deceased father.
The horror and tragedy of the Civil War is widely, if not universally, acknowledged. But the very nature of a conflict so great (as well as actual historical accounts) suggests that there was more at work in the war than villainy, greed, and malice. There were great men of valor and heroism on both sides of the conflict, but this is almost completely ignored in Cold Mountain. Certainly, Inman does some honorable deeds during his long journey, but there's no hint of a cause or ideals any greater than him. Those who might represent such ideals (Union soldiers or ministers, for instance) are depicted as hypocrites, murderers, and rapists.
Despite this, there is much to like about the film. The production values are fantastic, the scenery breathtaking, and the music wondrous. There are a handful of very effective scenes and several supporting players stand out-particularly Renee Zellweger as Ruby, a rough mountain girl who helps Ada manage the farm. The arc of Ms. Zellweger's character-a gruff exterior matched with fleeting moments of tenderness-is in many ways more resonant than the larger plot.
But ultimately, Cold Mountain's Greek roots, grand historical setting, and literary heritage are largely wasted on a cynical, postmodern view of the world that prevents the film from achieving any real sense of either tragedy or glory.