It’s rare to see a period epic that gratifies the eye, the mind, and the heart all at the same time, so audiences may be grateful to settle for two out of three. Adapted from Charles Frazier’s novel, Cold Mountain is a studiously carpentered film, with an Odyssey-through-the-backwoods vastness that is very pleasing, yet I can’t say I was deeply moved by one minute of it. It’s a Civil War drama that has the flow, the leisurely volatility, of a sprawling, ambitious Western; it takes place around the edges of battle, and around the edges of love, too. The movie hinges on a romance that is so refined — so abstract, even — it’s fulfilled, paradoxically, through absence, and that’s one reason you may find yourself absorbed by ”Cold Mountain” and still feel as if there’s not enough there there.
Inman (Jude Law), the virtuous fellow from the leafy, Edenic slopes of Cold Mountain, N.C., who joins and then deserts the Confederate army, is separated for virtually the entire film from Ada (Nicole Kidman), the reverend’s daughter who shows up in her blond ringlets and flowered bonnet, the vision of a cloistered Southern belle. It’s a measure of what a sensational actor Law is that he’s able to flirt up a storm with Kidman and, at the same time, look as if he’s fighting to overcome a lifetime of hardwired shyness. Inman, to put it mildly, is a man of few words. When he takes a break atop the house he’s helping to build and asks Ada for a glass of cider, he sounds tentative, a bit gruff, but Ada knows it’s really the deepest chivalry at work. For a man this handsome, the awkward refusal to be charming is the ultimate charm.
It’s hard to recall a courtship of such measured gentility, and ”Cold Mountain” heightens that delicacy by overlapping it with scenes, set three years later, of the Civil War at its most apocalyptic: In 1864, at the siege of Petersburg, Inman and his fellow troops are ambushed by explosives laid under their trenches. The carnage is brutal and shocking, and as the smoke billows, and the two sides go at each other with knife and claw, we see a very different Inman, his face streaked, his eyes white with disillusion.
That’s a huge, jolting step for a hero to take — from the bashful blush of love to the hideous knowledge of battle. The peculiarity of ”Cold Mountain” is that Inman undergoes that transformation quite fully within the film’s opening 20 minutes. As he escapes — or tries to — the war’s chaos, he wanders back home, mile after mile, through a combustible wilderness of blood and disorder. Some of his encounters have a malevolent and exciting force, yet nothing that happens alters his slightly sullen demeanor of taciturn nobility. Inman doesn’t deepen, or grow, or change. He simply survives, fighting his way through one baroque danger after the next. As staged by the director, Anthony Minghella, the movie is a picaresque physical journey without a matching emotional one.
Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as a lecherous reverend who, when Inman encounters him, is trying to drown the teenage slave he’s impregnated, and Hoffman uses his special gift for making masochistic piggishness likable. Before long, the two have wandered into the lair of a drunken hillbilly (Giovanni Ribisi) and his slovenly harem — the movie’s version of the island of Circe. Minghella, as he proved in ”The Talented Mr. Ripley,” has a knack for introducing violent depravity into situations where you least expect it. The most wrenching episode is the one in which Inman is sheltered by a young mother (Natalie Portman), and their encounter with Union renegades reaches a crescendo of fear.
As a deserter, Inman is hidden behind a bushy beard, his destiny linked to that of everyone he meets — at one point literally, when he tumbles down a hill as part of a chain gang. His journey is paralleled by the fate of Ada, who sustains him by writing chastely florid letters of devotion. Back in Cold Mountain, she has no one to fend for her — at least, until Renée Zellweger shows up as Ruby, a farmhand who declares her presence by twisting off the head of a rooster. Zellweger, drawling like a cousin of Jed Clampett, waddles through the cornfields with amusingly speedy purpose. Her performance may be vintage Oscar ham, but there’s no denying that she floods the screen with personality. Kidman, by contrast, has been given little to do but tremble grandly; her Ada is like Scarlett O’Hara so cleansed of neurosis that you wish she’d been left with at least a trace of it. For Ada and Inman, love is really the promise of love, the faith that sustains them through the dirty fallout of war. There has to be more to epic film characters, though, than the purity of their devotion. ”Cold Mountain” does all it can to make you swoon, and as watchable as the movie is, that’s just what doesn’t happen.