This is one stunner of a movie. Charles Frazier's lofty novel — it's really The Odyssey set during the Civil War — could have been one of those dust-dry film versions of "great literature." (Remember the botch job on Snow Falling on Cedars?) But gifted director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), who wrote the well-judged screenplay, gives the story a hot-blooded urgency.
Cold Mountain has it all: love, war, humor, suspense and a probing sense of what it takes for a divided America to heal its wounds. It's a triumph for Minghella, who casts the film with a keen eye. Jude Law gives a breakthrough star performance as Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier so tormented by the fighting — the opening battle scene is authentically harrowing — that he heads home on foot to the woman he left behind. She is Ada, and as embodied and eroticized by Nicole Kidman she is someone well worth the hike to North Carolina. Kidman lights up the screen. She and Law fire up the love story at the heart of this intimate epic.
A remarkable feat, because the movie, like the book, mostly keeps these two characters apart. Inman's travels, interacting with characters such as a lonely war widow (Natalie Portman) and a lecherous preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are interspersed with Ada working the farm with Ruby, a rough-spoken hellraiser played by a roaringly comic Renee Zellweger, who steals every scene she's in. But even Ruby has secrets. The specter of war haunts Cold Mountain, but you remember it for the heat of its romantic yearning and the mysteries that wrap themselves around you until you're lost in another world.