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A touch of Homer in a grand American story 

Although critics constantly announce their discovery of fashions and trends, as Senator Eugene McCarthy noted of the New Hampshire primary, what looks like ground swell may turn out to be merely a frost heave. It may seem remarkable, however, that two grand military epics set in the 19th century should open within weeks of each other in the same final month of the year. Coupled with the comparable visual splendor and enormous length of the violent and bloody conclusion to The Lord of the Rings cycle, also a December baby, the appearance of The Last Samurai and now, Cold Mountain at least hints at some new treatment of the war story in keeping with the mood of the time.

          Based on a best-selling, award-winning novel, Cold Mountain deals with one of the greatest and most enduring American calamities, which we will never entirely overcome: the Civil War. Following the dominant vision of American literature, it considers that conflict from the Southern side, a circumstance that as William Faulkner suggested, results from the ineluctable fact of defeat: When a nation, a culture, a people win a war, they wind up only with victory, but when they lose, they can cherish so much more, like a need to keep the past alive, a sense of lost honor, a permanently wounded pride. (Skeptics should consider the history not only of the American South but of Ireland, or the Arab countries, along with present conditions in Iraq.)

          Although it employs two major characters, like the most famous of all Civil War novels, Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain concentrates particularly on the role of women in the conflict. Nicole Kidman plays Ada Monroe, the proper daughter of a minister --- what else? --- who falls in love with a young townsman in Cold Mountain, South Carolina just as the war breaks out. The young man, Inman (Jude Law), seriously wounded in the butchery of battle in Virginia, deserts from a military hospital and embarks on a long odyssey back home to Cold Mountain and Ada.

          The picture rapidly settles into a series of long intercut sequences of pain and suffering: the genteel Ada's difficulties with farm life; shortages; the menace of the Home Guard, a gang of sadistic thugs who seek out deserters and torture anyone assisting them; Inman's apparently endless trek through cold and snow --- in the South at that; and his numerous encounters with people who obstruct his journey.

          Near starvation, Ada finds a friend and helper in Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger), an uncompromising, no-nonsense young woman who teaches Ada how to grow crops and care for animals. Together, the two women scratch out a living and, with a neighbor, eventually form something of a community. Meanwhile, Inman meets a strange variety of people, including a goatherd with healing powers, a lusty preacher, a family of sirens who betray him, and a squad of Union soldiers who attempt to rape a young woman who shelters him. Ultimately his Homeric quest ends, somewhat ambiguously, in Cold Mountain, with more violence, a moment of bliss in the arms of Ada/Penelope, and some hope for a peaceful future in the new community.

          Despite its length, the movie proceeds, assisted by its many exciting episodes, without establishing that solemn air of boredom that accompanies substantial, allegedly serious works of film. Some brief and efficient characterization and a good deal of violent action enliven the long progress of Inman's various adventures. The director, Anthony Minghella, employs a number of sweeping panoramas, exploiting the visual and dramatic possibilities of the rivers and hills of the purportedly Southern landscape. The one great battle scene shows something of the slaughter that passed for combat during the Civil War, with a set piece of the dead, dying, and wounded reminiscent of a famous shot in Gone With the Wind.

          Whatever its merits, the picture demonstrates over and over a dreadfully bleak view of human nature, showing just about all of its people, Union or Confederate, as vicious, brutal, rapacious beasts, quite willing to steal, betray, or murder just about anyone they encounter. The book, I am told, emphasizes even more strongly the cruelty and inadequacy of all its males, and contrasts with that the resourcefulness, goodness, and wisdom of its females, and the movie continues something of that vision. Only the gentle, noble, longsuffering Inman (should that be Unman?) emerges with any grace or glory.

          Jude Law and Nicole Kidman make a perfect couple --- handsome, decent, and decorous --- whose love consists mostly of burning glances and modest proposals. Their passivity contrasts nicely with the work of Renée Zellweger, who overacts entertainingly as the tough little Ruby Thewes, the only person who can rescue Kidman from her predicament and hold off the predators threatening all the men and women in Cold Mountain. Like the many other supporting actors in this vast movie, she makes the principals seem bland and colorless, cardboard characters in an excessive if generally entertaining picture.

Cold Mountain, starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, Giovanni Ribisi, Eileen Atkins, Charles Hussman, Ethan Suplee, Lucas Black, Jack White; based on the novel by Charles Frazier; written and directed by Anthony Minghella. Cinemark Tinseltown, Hoyts Greece Ridge, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Henrietta.

You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.

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