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'Cold Mountain,' empty melodrama

Miramax rolls out another one just in time for Oscar voting, but its good looks can't hide its hollow heart.

Published December 25, 2003

Each December, Miramax Films rolls out a big-budget adaptation of an acclaimed novel because (A.) those movies are hailed as Oscar contenders on literary reputation alone, and (B.) it helps studio founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein cleanse themselves of the previous 11 months' junk, suggesting that behind their money-grabbing mogul facades there are actually true artistes wanting to be appreciated.

Sometimes we get films deserving every break the Weinsteins can offer, such as The Cider House Rules and The Talented Mr. Ripley. More recently, however, the tactic has resulted in esoteric drivel like The Shipping News and Chocolat.

The corrosion of Miramax's golden touch continues with Cold Mountain, a dreary, confused and unintentionally comical adaptation of Charles Frazier's bestseller set in the Civil War era. Each frame of the film - directed by the Weinsteins' favorite literalist, Anthony Minghella - is constructed for posterity that the entire package doesn't merit. Nothing about the production is haphazard, but much of it is miscalculated. Cold Mountain is a molehill of entertainment, overly harsh at times and artfully insignificant at others.

Jude Law, so charismatic in Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, is stiff as a board playing Inman, a wounded Confederate deserter trekking back to his North Carolina home and the arms of Ada (a miscast Nicole Kidman). Not that they've ever been lovers. Flashbacks revealed they hardly knew each other before the battlefield called. Law's restraint and Kidman's embarrassing attempt to play a shy Southern flower make it seem unlikely they ever would. There's no spark in their abbreviated courtship, so the idea that Inman would go through all these Homeric troubles to see her again after three years is incredible, except perhaps to the book's fans, who can fill in the romantic blanks.

Inman's journey introduces him to a variety of cornpone eccentrics and victims, from Philip Seymour Hoffman hamming it up as a disgraced preacher to Natalie Portman playing a single mom protecting her baby from Union intruders. Temptations are constant, with women throwing themselves at the handsome traveler at each stop. But Inman's resolve to remain true to Ada is unshakable, making the lack of chemistry in Law and Kidman's early scenes more troublesome.

Meanwhile, Ada's genteel lifestyle drastically changes. The death of her father (Donald Sutherland) and Inman's absence leave her broke and uncaring about their home. Enter Renee Zellweger as Ruby, a tough woman played with the subtlety of a Dogpatch citizen in Lil' Abner. After all the gloom preceding her introduction, Ruby's brashness is a jolt, a too-obvious lunge for comic relief that becomes annoying. Ruby whips Ada into some degree of shape while Teague (Ray Winstone), a self-appointed "protector" of Cold Mountain when the boys are away, wishes Ada would love him. Of course, her devotion to Inman brings out Teague's worst instincts. The fact that deserters and people aiding them can be shot on sight doesn't help.

Minghella treats all this melodrama with the reverence of Scripture, never seeming to notice how shallow the emotions are running. The frosty environs allow cinematographer John Seale to frame each setting in lovely fashion while the actors pose for still life art. Occasionally a scene offers some insight into the divisions between men and women caused by the war. Portman's segment, including a tearful rejection of her advances to Inman, works best; Kidman's pining is the worst. But the feeling never subsides that the major characters as presented onscreen wouldn't be in these situations except through screenwriter's conceit.

Cold Mountain is a noble gesture but a wayward one, from its war-is-hell opening sequence to the choppy flashbacks to a tragic conclusion that Minghella telegraphs early. The film looks like an award contender yet plays almost like a parody of the grand literary adaptations that voters like to reward. Miramax will be selling it as the former, and the Weinsteins' crack marketing team will likely buy a few honorable mentions. But it's what shows onscreen that matters, and in the case of Cold Mountain, that doesn't matter much.

Cold Mountain

Grade: C

Director: Anthony Minghella

Cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, James Gammon, Giovanni Ribisi

Screenplay: Anthony Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier

Rating: R; violence, sexual situations, nudity, profanity

Running time: 160 min.

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