The film surfs through genres as needed - never presenting a dull moment. It is a romance, a war story, an action-adventure and historical fiction, all nicely woven into one.
The story centers on Inman (Jude Law) and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), who are smitten with each other for very simple reasons. As this young romance begins to bud, Inman enlists in the confederate army, taking with him a book Ada has given him and a photograph of her. Ada's character is one of the most brilliant aspects of the film, which is important because the audience experiences this film from a third person perspective, but the story is clearly hers from the beginning to the end. Ada is an intelligent southern belle and daughter of a liberal minister. She begins the film as a daddy's girl skilled in many of the arts that southern women who have been surrounded by servants most of their lives were expected to learn. In other words, as she admits to Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), she is a master of everything useless.
Ada's father passes on, and she is left to manage his modest estate by herself. With no experience of this sort, she struggles, and survives by holding the memory of Inman close to her heart. Ruby enters the picture as a tough young woman who has been raised by a drunk and negligent father. Ruby has all the skills and abilities Ada lacks, and as they become inseparable business partners, they grow to love one another as best friends. Inman's experience is radically different, but something of a mirror image. During his participation in the war, he sees many friends killed for causes they don't really believe in, and decides to desert. Nobody he meets comes to his rescue as he begins the thousand mile walk back to Cold Mountain and Ada, and most of those he meets die.
The bulk of the film takes place during Inman's long walk, following both of the protagonists as they live, learn, grow and change. An on-going act of will borne of desperation preserves their intense passionate love. For Inman, it is his only source of hope in a world of pure desperation. For Ada, it is very much the same thing, but also a symbol and remnant of the old south - a world which is rapidly passing.
The cinematography is powerful and breathtaking. There are beautiful shots of Appalachian landscapes which give the film a strong sense of history. The script and editing are also extremely strong - emphasizing the broad class and educational differences reflected in the ante bellum southern dialects of the middle and lower classes. With the cast of this film, nothing short of perfection should be expected. And the cast, mostly, rises to the occasion. My one criticism, however, relates to the accents adopted by Kidman and Law's characters. An Australian and a Brit probably should not be expected to accurately reproduce southern American speech, but there are a few occasions where these two exceptionally gifted actors produce distracting vocal slips. I admit my oversensitivity to this, and can say with some confidence that it won't bother most people. Zellweger's performance is outstanding and she creates a character I will remember into my senescence.
Very highly recommended.