'Cold Mountain' achieves grandeur on every level

by Rebecca Leffler | 1/7/04 6:00am

It is rare to be able to sit through a two-and-a-half hour film and enjoy every minute. Admit it, you looked at your watch at least six times during "Titanic" and you took frequent bathroom breaks during the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy marathon. But, in "Cold Mountain," an adaptation of Charles Frazier's best-selling novel, director Anthony Minghella (of "The English Patient" fame) suspends time -- and your breath -- for 132 minutes of drama, laughter and heartache that almost achieves the epic grandeur it appears to be seeking.

In case you haven't read the book, the story of "Cold Mountain" follows Inman (Jude Law), a wounded confederate soldier who escapes death and sets out on an odyssey back to Cold Mountain to reach his love, Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), the daughter of a clergyman (Donald Sutherland). As Inman battles gunshot wounds, Union soldiers and capital punishment for deserting the cause, Ada braves the harsh winter months on Cold Mountain alone.

In this tragic, Civil War romantic drama, Nicole Kidman's beauty radiates on the screen and her exquisiteness refuses to be a substitute for versatility as an actress. Even in oversized men's clothing that's been tattered from rural life in wartime, Kidman maintains her unfaltering sense of class and elegance. Kidman's effort is noble -- clearly, the right dialect coach was hired for this project -- and her on-screen presence is inarguably resplendent, but it may be hard for some viewers to believe that he or she is watching Ada Monroe and not that famous Australian actress who always looks fabulous at the Oscars.

The chemistry between Kidman and Jude Law, however, is so good that it makes you wonder if perhaps there is truth to those British tabloid rumors of off-screen romance between these two on-screen lovers. Though the two protagonists share very little screen-time, their moments together are extremely powerful.

The passionate kiss Inman gives Ada before going off to war is so far removed from the nudity-filled sex scenes common to modern films and displays a refined sexiness that belongs in the genre of classic Hollywood films of the early 20th century. "Cold Mountain" is, above all, a love story and, though arguably clichd at times, one that is not marred by wanton sex or naive idealism.

While Law and Kidman certainly shine, it is the supporting performances that truly achieve the epic spectacular that is "Cold Mountain." Rene Zellweger is nothing short of perfect as Ada's feisty sidekick, Ruby Thewes.

Zellweger proves her unpretentious versatility once again as she transforms herself from a lithe beauty into an aggressive, ranting Southerner and gives this cold, tragic movie some much-needed warmth and wit. Zellweger's chameleon-like ability to literally become such a buoyant, effervescent character is an extraordinary achievement, and one that ought to be met with Academy Award recognition.

"Cold Mountain," has been perhaps the most talked-about film of the holiday season. The cast and crew endured some of the harshest weather conditions in Romania, and monetary problems nearly prevented completion of the project.

Yet this suffering was well worth it, as the performances reflect the uncomfortable conditions (Kidman certainly doesn't appear happy to be wearing tight undergarments and trudging through the mud, and those circles under Law's eyes were probably not made with makeup). The cinematography is undeniably breathtaking; the vast, rugged hills of Romania create a stunning portrait of 19th century North Carolina.

"Cold Mountain" is far from being an epic masterpiece la "The English Patient" and "Gone With the Wind," which it clearly attempts to be. But it certainly entertains and displays a wide range of talent. Even despite its high-profile cast, "Cold Mountain" is unglamorously tragic, and, despite some mixed reviews, is definitely one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the year.

And, perhaps a little golden man named Oscar will agree.