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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, December 24, 2003

'Cold Mountain' does its best with a molehill of a premise

By Christy Lemire
Associated Press Entertainment Writer

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, who play characters in love but far apart during the Civil War, are Golden Globe best-acting nominees for those roles. "Cold Mountain" which collected a leading eight Golden Globe nominations Thursday.

Miramax Films via Associated Press

"Cold Mountain" plays like a glossy version of "The Odyssey" crossed with "The Simple Life."

It might sound crass to mention a reality show in the same breath as this, perhaps the Most Important Film in a crowded season of Very Important Films.

And yet "Cold Mountain" left me, well, a little cold. I admired what I saw. I just wasn't moved by it. Also, there comes a point: You can't go Homer again.

Everything about it demands respect — from director Anthony Minghella (an Oscar winner for "The English Patient") to the story of abiding love and perseverance, which he adapted from Charles Frazier's dense prose, to the formidable ensemble cast, led by Nicole Kidman (an Oscar winner for "The Hours"), Jude Law (an Oscar nominee for Minghella's "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and Renee Zellweger (an Oscar nominee for "Chicago").

It's an undeniably gorgeous spectacle, every inch the Hollywood epic, with lush cinematography from John Seale (also an Oscar winner for "The English Patient") and costume and production design that are obsessive in their detail. The opening Civil War battle scenes are so violent, they're almost unbearable to watch — and some may say they're especially resonant now, which will further heighten the perception that this is a Very Important Film.

Kidman and Law, both actors with tremendous allure and presence capable of convincing transformations — she in "The Hours," he in "Road to Perdition" — have difficulty convincing us that they're in love with each other.

As the prim, wealthy Ada, Kidman struggles alone to maintain her family's North Carolina farm after her preacher father (Donald Sutherland) suddenly dies. Law, as the taciturn Confederate soldier Inman, struggles to return home to Ada, the woman with whom he shared a few furtive glances and a passionate kiss before heading off to war.

But even in a faded frock and with her blond tresses ratted, Kidman manages to look ravishing. And by the end — when she's supposed to have undergone a complete makeover from helpless Southern belle to shotgun-toting cowgirl — she still looks like a Ralph Lauren model, with her perfectly imperfect braids and her stylish black chapeau.

When Ada stomps and pouts about having to kill roosters and mend fences, it's hard not to think of another statuesque blonde, Paris Hilton, wobbling across Arkansas in $2,000 heels and complaining about having to milk cows.

Zellweger is more compelling as Ruby, the in-your-face, tough-as-nails mountain woman who appears just in time to help Ada (and liven up the film). It's a showier role than Ada, and Ruby's feistiness and humor allow Zellweger to steal scenes from Kidman, though the two women share an easy, believable camaraderie.

Minghella alternates smoothly between the present and flashbacks, between Ada's and Ruby's story and the journey of Inman, a wounded deserter who encounters every manner of friend and foe — and suffers a few more injuries — on the way home. (Though Law, covered in blood, mud and stubble, remains transcendently beautiful.)

Here the stunt casting can seem a bit gratuitous (Here's Philip Seymour Hoffman as a wayward minister! There's Giovanni Ribisi as the leader of a backwoods harem!) but it also provides one of the film's more emotional scenes, between Inman and a young widowed mother who gives him shelter, played by Natalie Portman.

Moments like that one are likely to stick in the minds of Oscar voters, for whom this grand, handsome film clearly was intended.

"Cold Mountain," a Miramax Films release, is rated R for violence and sexuality. Running time: 150 minutes. Three stars out of four.