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Chill Factor: Nicole Kidman and Jude Law have trouble breaking the ice in 'Cold Mountain.'

The Southern Patient

Anthony Minghella puts a New Age spin on Civil War romance in 'Cold Mountain'

By Richard von Busack

THE CHRISTMAS offering Cold Mountain defines the 10-pound holiday fruitcake movie: nutty, fruity morsels of acting are enveloped in a dry, chewy mass. Director Anthony Minghella continues his strategy of taking unfilmable, poetic novels (such as The English Patient) and turning them into spectacles.

This time, Minghella attempts to transform Charles Frazier into Charles Dickens. What kind of person is Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield? Determined, virtuous, yes, but is he as interesting as Micawber, Uriah Heep or the Cheerybles? Cold Mountain is like that--a bundle of fine supporting bits and a pair of chilly, precise actors in the lead.

Frazier's novel may be the hardest nut Minghella has ever tried to crack. The writing is an uneasy mixture of Western-movie terseness and New Age fanciness: critter skinning and transcendentalism combined.

It's the winter of 1864-65. The Confederate deserter hero Inman treks home like Ulysses. His walking-wounded journey alternates with scenes of Ada, the woman he loves, a city refugee surviving off her farm. The home-front sequences at the village of Cold Mountain look like illustrated pages from Foxfire magazine, that once-famous guide to the how-to of Appalachian crafts.

In the farming sections, Minghella looses Renée Zellweger from the leash--and off she goes. She hams it up, face-scrunching to a fare-thee-well as Ruby, a backcountry woman who volunteers to teach the fancy, Charleston-raised Ada (Nicole Kidman) how to farm.

As Ada changes from city lady to country girl, Inman staggers home, half-dead from a wound received at the Battle of the Crater. The film's opening sequence--a mere paragraph buried in Frazier's book--shows us one of the Civil War's least-glamorous battles, which took place at Petersburg, Va., on July 30, 1864, where the Union troops tried to blast their way in by planting an immense mine of explosives under the Confederate lines.

The essential horror of war lies in unbelievable sights: "Pigs eating roast people," thought the author Michael Herr after he saw a napalmed village in Vietnam. In The Ghost Road, novelist Pat Barker, working from eyewitness accounts, describes a World War I battle where the poison-gas fumes and artillery smoke give the illusion of the sun setting at dawn. Cold Mountain's cinematic re-creation matches the account given in Warren Wilkinson's 1990 Civil War history, Mother, May You Never See the Sights I Have Seen.

At the Crater, Wilkinson writes, the Yankees "saw that the fort and the earth surrounding it were rising, in apparent slow motion." Minghella catches the slow-motion rise and the looks on the faces of the men riding a wavelike swell of earth. He also shows the aftermath: Confederates harpooning advancing Union soldiers caught in the resulting crater by tossing in rifles with fixed bayonets.

Strangely, Minghella misses a detail that Wilkinson stresses: how black Union troops were deliberately shot by both sides. Perhaps not so strangely--as usual, this Civil War movie favors the South, insisting that the war was not about slavery but about defense and young men spoiling for a fight.

After the hellish battle, Inman (Jude Law) pulls himself together in a flyblown military hospital and decides to walk back to his lady love in the hills. The road home is unsafe, alive with Union stragglers and man-catchers.

During his travels, Inman is joined by Junior (Giovanni Ribisi) and Rev. Veasey (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who turn up in the "Sirens" episode, beguiled and undone by country sluts. Eileen Atkins plays the healing goatherd woman in the most airy-fairy passage in both the book and the movie, mixing herbs and dispensing a little Jungian therapy on the side.

Brendan Gleeson stands out as Stobrod, Ruby's drunken, fiddler father (cleaned up from the book and given a handsome-looking waistcoat). Natalie Portman shines in a small part as a widow rescued by Inman. She has the best shot in the film: we see her peering through a clouded window, like a tintype mildewed by the years.

To expand the tension on the home front, Minghella creates a villain, Teague (Ray Winstone), a Bluto-like hunter of deserters who has designs on Ada. The great Kathy Baker plays a neighboring farmer. Baker has the one perfect mountain accent in Cold Mountain, and of course, it gets silenced.

The film works the common touch with the flowery farms and dialogue--and a scene of Ruby and Ada causing a tiny scandal going around dressed in men's clothes. Zellweger's bucolic clowning is nothing if not crowd-pleasing; she practically belts out "I Caint Say No."

But there's more frost here than just the snow scenes. Law's performances in The Road to Perdition, Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley and A.I. left audiences wanting more. He doesn't seem too anachronistic. Once upon a time, Law would have made a first-rate Billy the Kid. Law's ghostlike incomprehension of what he sees in battle seems just right for a freshly returning vet.

Yet everything else in his portrayal doesn't add up to what we think of as a warrior, much less an outdoorsman. (He says he works in wood, but wasn't Jude Law meant for parlors?) The clinch between Inman and Ada is aesthetically pleasing; Kidman finally has a leading man as pretty and willowy as herself. Still, the embrace gives off no heat. Minghella fractures the love scene into discreet, odd snippets, jaggedly made to forestall any controversy over sex. Of course, the movie has to be kept clean, but I couldn't count the number of cutlasses in the guts.

Kidman is an excellent reactress, a master of the sidelong glance--a woman who's startled like a deer at human clumsiness. But Kidman seems--finally--remote. She's always excelled at uncanny parts: the maid in The Ghosts, her ice maiden in To Die For, her macabre Virginia Woolf, gazing at her own fate in the form of a dead sparrow: nothing is as dead as a dead bird. What is it about the chilly Kidman, with her Miz Scarlett mannerisms, that would make a man come back from the dead ... and keep coming back from the dead, as Inman does?

Cold Mountain (R; 155 min.), directed by Anthony Minghella, written by Minghella and Charles Frazier, photographed by John Seale and starring Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, opens Dec. 25 valleywide.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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