Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn about Anthony Minghella's lush but chilly take on Charles Frazier's Civil War-set Cold Mountain, that in-flight standard located right next to your barf bag and coming soon to an Oscar telecast near you. Minghella, too good with actors to peg as an old-school impresario, comes awfully close to producing a "Hey, look!" movie. As in, Hey, look! Some slaves picking cotton! And Hey, look! Muddy pools of blood on the battlefield! A ragged flag fluttering in the haze! Yes, there are human beings here, too, including a Grace Kelly-ish Nicole Kidman (as if on prim leave from High Noon), and Jude Law in a beard. But while their characters' eventual coupling is meant to register as a climax, I had long since deserted the field.
Their hearts will go on: Nicole Kidman and Jude Law in 'Cold Mountain'
Too hard on it, you say? Perhaps. After all, the novel itself isn't much more than a then-this-happened odyssey that Minghella has dutifully transformed into an HBO-ready serial. The book's flashback-laden double narrative--alternating between a Reb deserter making his way home to hilly Appalachia and his strong-willed Penelope fighting off advances--has been predictably straightened in favor of grandiose Story and relentless Event. Which worked for Minghella in The English Patient, but here the drama is much too thin; the protagonists fling themselves through doorways, scan the horizon with tears in their eyes. They ache, these lovers, and yet they seem like objects in a story that ought to be spinning out of their passion. (And in the absence of the book's reflective interiority, the movie has no business calling its hero Inman.)
Roughing up this assumptive affair are the supporting players; never will you be as grateful for bits of business provided by Philip Seymour Hoffman, alt-rocker Jack White (whom I'd sooner call a weird actor than a bad one), and a bravely maturing Natalie Portman, working in a galaxy far away from Lucasfilm. Sliced right off the ham shank is Renée Zellweger as a mountain girl given to squinty-eyed forthrightness; her shtick relieves the movie, but does Zellweger redeem the shtick? It's a close call. You want the movie to be about her, but, in due time, you also want to strangle her. Both impulses point to a production gone almost as horribly awry as Gettysburg.