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Opens Thursday, Dec. 25

It's of the year's more eagerly anticipated movies, but the journey to "Cold Mountain" may be a chilly one for adult audiences. Hewing closely to the spirit of Charles Frazier's best-selling Civil War novel, the movie is a somber, often downbeat depiction of human savagery and treachery as well as of human kindness.

Writer-director Anthony Minghella has meticulously crafted an intimate epic that, while it does have a somewhat cerebral tone, is clearly determined to translate Frazier's vision of human hope amid great brutality to the screen. And as he did with "The English Patient", Minghella has made a war movie that is likely to intrigue women more than men. Macho pride is viewed as lethal folly, leading to unimaginable hardship and tragedy that will take generations to heal.

A solid cast plays the backwoods Southerners extremely well. Nicole Kidman is allowed to look entirely too glamorous for the period and her character's dire situation, but she does capture the yearning and hopes of a young woman waiting for her soldier to return from an increasingly senseless war. Renee Zellweger completely disappears into the person of the feisty farm girl who rescues Kidman's helpless gentlewoman farmer. While Jude Law is at times cool and remote, he makes you feel a soldier's war weariness and his determination to walk home from the battlefield.

In his novel, Frazier transposed Homer's "The Odyssey" into the waning days of the Civil War, where a wounded Confederate soldier searches for his home. Frazier drew upon stories handed down by his North Carolina ancestors to recount the journey of Inman (Law), who walks out of an army hospital for a journey through mountains and forests rife with danger. Both the book and movie cut between the episodic tales of the soldier's survival and the struggles of the woman he left behind.

Inman met Ada (Kidman) just before war broke out, so their memories of each other are few but all the more precious for their brevity. Ada's minister-father (Donald Sutherland) brought her to Cold Mountain, where he wanted to preach. But his sudden death leaves his daughter, schooled in music and French, overwhelmed by a farm she does not know how to tend. A kind neighbor (Kathy Baker) sends to her aid a tenacious local woman named Ruby (Zellweger), who may be uneducated but is tougher than most men and know every trick to running a homestead.

Inman sticks to back roads as the Home Guard roams the countryside looking for deserters to shoot. In his travels, he encounters a randy and disgraced minister Philip Seymour Hoffman), a backwoods redneck (Giovanni Ribisi) lording over a family of sluts, a frightened young widow (Natalie Portman) at the mercy of federal raiders and a guardian angel disguised as a goat keeper (Eileen Atkins).

Meanwhile, Ada and Ruby must fend off the local Home Guard, led by a treacherous Teague (Ray Winstone) and his blond-tressed henchman Bosie (Charlie Hunnam), and deal with the surprise homecoming of Ruby's wayward, fiddle-playing father (Brendan Gleeson), long thought dead but returned as a deserter along with two fellow musicians (Jack White and Ethan Suplee).

Minghella has altered and in some instances improved on the novel's episodes, sharpening the emotional connection between the long-separated lovers and underscoring the perils of a land robbed of its manners and morals by war. Combat scenes early in the film -- often shot tightly to emphasize the chaos of murderous hand-to-hand fighting in mud -- and the aftermath where flies buzz over piles of ruined corpses bring home the unfathomable carnage of the Civil War. This is in contrast to Inman's memories of the outbreak of war three years earlier, when Cold Mountain's youth all shouted with great enthusiasm, "We got our war!"

Minghella's production team -- including cinematographer John Seale, editor Walter Murch, costume designer Ann Roth (assisted by Carlo Poggioli) and production designer Dante Ferretti -- re-create in rural Romania the terrifying yet rugged beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains community and the hardscrabble wilderness through which Inman wanders. Gabriel Yared's often melancholy but always melodic music filters through folk tunes of the period, making the score feel organic to the movie.

COLD MOUNTAIN

Miramax Films

A Mirage Enterprises/Bona Fide production

Credits:

Screenwriter-director: Anthony Minghella

Producers: Sydney Pollack, William Horberg, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa

Executive producers: Iain Smith, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Osher

Director of photography: John Seale

Production designer: Dante Ferretti

Music: Gabriel Yared

Costume designer: Ann Roth, Carlo Poggioli

Editor: Walter Murch

Cast:

Inman: Jude Law

Ada: Nicole Kidman

Ruby: Renee Zellweger

Maddy: Eileen Atkins

Stobrod: Brendan Gleeson

Rev. Veasey: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Sara: Natalie Portman

Junior: Giovanni Ribisi

Rev. Monroe: Donald Sutherland

Teague: Ray Winstone

Sally: Kathy Baker

Esco: James Gammon

Bosie: Charlie Hunnam

Running time -- 154 minutes

MPAA rating: R


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