It's not hard to understand why Miramax decided to roll the dice on this $83-million period epic. They had exceptional source material in Charles Frazier's 1997 best-seller, a rhapsodically acclaimed Civil War love story inspired by Homer's The Odyssey; a director, Anthony Minghella, whose prestige adaps of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley proved him a skilled, elegant hand when it comes to distilling a bookâs essence; and dazzling star power in the glam triumvirate of Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renee Zellweger. Time to lie back and dream of Oscar... Again.
But here's the rub. Getting pedigree ingredients to gel is all part of the strange alchemy of movies. Mess it up by the tiniest fraction and it can all fall a bit flat. Which, unfortunately, is what happens to Cold Mountain. So a" finger-pointing time and where does it go wrong? Well, it's not DoP John Seale's majestic visuals: every frame is brought to painterly life, right down to the harrowing Siege of Petersburg which opens the film, showing the war in a pitiless light. In fact, hopes run high at the start: it seems that Minghella has sussed the mix of mythic and personal, as Inmanâs wartime experiences are cross-cut with flashbacks and Adaâs voiced-over letters, bringing us up to speed on their brief courtship.
It's in the characterisations that Cold Mountain stumbles. Don't get us wrong everyone's fine. But fine isn't enough in a large-scale drama designed to grab the audience by the throat, and leave them emotionally tattered by the end. Lawâs deserter flees from two armies, is tortured, chained, drugged... Yet Inman remains a largely passive enigma, the brooding charisma that Law showed in Ripley as elusive as Kidmanâs North Carolina accent. The Aussie actress, meanwhile, gives a skittish, unsettled performance, even as the bookish, sheltered Ada starts notching up a few survival skills. It feels like a turn Kidman would have given when she was still shackled by the Hollywood chaingang, before the risk-taking of Moulin Rouge and Dogville.
Of the three star turns, Zellweger's wily mountain child comes off best. Unlike her counterpart in Frazier's novel, she's little more than cantankerous comic relief, but she pulls it off. Cold Mountain's most vivid and visceral moments come from its outstanding support crew, including Philip Seymour Hoffman as a sleazy preacher, Ray Winstone as the local scumbag and Natalie Portman as a widowed mother. Top marks, however, go to Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's fiddle-plucking father. His scenes serve to remind you that the novel's power lies in its depiction of ordinary people being irrevocably changed by a savage war.