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Review: 'Cold Mountain' offers grand sweep

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Cold Mountain
Renee Zellweger, left, and Nicole Kidman team up in "Cold Mountain."

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Renee Zellweger
Nicole Kidman
Jude Law

(CNN) -- The film adaptation of "Cold Mountain" is an epic love story that conveys the horrors of war in an up-close and personal way often attempted in movies but rarely achieved.

Based on Charles Frazier's 1997 novel, this highly sentimental tale set during the American Civil War is also achingly romantic and has Oscar written all over it.

With Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger and Jude Law, the movie contains some of the best acting of the year and is beautifully mounted by Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient").

"Cold Mountain" blatantly tugs at your heartstrings while exploring the heartlessness of war. At times, the story verges on sliding into a vapid emotional soup, but Minghella (who also adapted the script from the original book) and his superb cast never quite let that happen.

Kidman stars as Ada, a well-bred preacher's daughter who falls in love with a simple working man from Cold Mountain, North Carolina, named Inman -- played with great skill by Law. When the Civil War breaks out, Inman and every other able-bodied man in the area join the Confederate army.

Zellweger plays the feisty Ruby, a no-nonsense, earthy country woman who helps the sheltered Ada during the darkest days of the war when she almost gives up hope of seeing Inman again. The scene when Ruby first meets Ada is wonderful and establishes their relationship instantly.

In the waning days of the savage conflict, Inman escapes from a hospital and begins to walk hundreds of miles back home to Cold Mountain. There, Ada and Ruby are faced with a group of lawless thugs called the Home Guard, who have taken it upon themselves to terrorize civilians in the name of the Confederacy.

Ultimately, the film is a tale of the journeys of the three main characters: Inman's physical trek as he tries to return home against all odds, and Ada's and Ruby's struggles of the heart and soul as they fight to survive the bitter hardships in a ravaged land.

Minghella's mesmerizing adaptation

Adapting a well-loved novel to the big screen is Minghella's specialty: The director did it with "The English Patient" in 1996 and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in 1999. He once again has achieved the miracle of transforming a difficult book with an inner narrative into a deeply satisfying film.

Jude Law
Jude Law plays a Confederate soldier in "Cold Mountain."

There are also three small performances of great note: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a disgraced minister, Natalie Portman as a helpless farmer's wife rescued by Inman and Giovanni Ribisi as a despicable backwoodsman who betrays Inman.

Also look for the character of Georgia, played by Jack White of the White Stripes: His originally was a singing role, but the rocker ended up with a few lines in the finished film. He's also romantically linked with Zellweger.

Superlatives extend beyond cast

Shot mostly on location in Romania, "Cold Mountain" reeks of authenticity. Moviegoers will feel swept back into the 1860s. Cinematographer John Seale, who also worked on "Ripley" and won an Academy Award with Minghella for "The English Patient," is a master at framing shots while intermixing intimate images with grand visual sequences.

Composer Gabriel Yared, who also received an Oscar for "The English Patient," provides a sweeping score that underlines the deep emotions and grand themes in this marvelous movie. But it's the authentic folk and bluegrass music produced by T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?") that captures the mood and essence of the times.

In the few remaining days of Academy Award consideration, "Cold Mountain" emerges as a main contender with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" as a front-runner for the year's best picture.

"Cold Mountain" opens nationwide Thursday. It is rated R, with a running time of 155 minutes.

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