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Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella's heroic depiction of small lives ground up in the machinery of war is seldom as affecting as it means to be. June 1864: Union Forces mass for the brutal Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia, which starts with the construction of dynamite-packed tunnels behind enemy lines and ends with Northern troops, trapped in the pit their own explosions created, sustaining severe losses at the hands of surviving Confederate troops. Dispatched to a hellish field hospital, wounded, war-weary son of the South Inman (Jude Law) goes AWOL as soon as he can walk. Hollowed out and scraped raw by the brutality he's witnessed, he begins trudging the 300 miles that separate him from his home in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. In flashback, his tentative courtship of educated, city-bred beauty Ada (Nicole Kidman) unfolds: Ada, devoted to her ailing father, the Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland), moves to rural Cold Mountain armed with an endless supply of impractical but decorative skills. She and Inman, a sensitive laborer, exchange soulful glances but declare their intentions only under pressure: Moments before Inman is mustered out of town, they share a passionate kiss, and Ada vows to wait faithfully until he returns. Each writes regularly, but wartime chaos sends most of their letters astray. As Inman comes face to face with the savagery of combat, Reverend Monroe dies, leaving Ada bereft and ill-equipped to survive on her own. She's saved from genteel starvation by feisty Ruby Thewes (Renee Zellweger), who teaches Ada to work her own farm in exchange for room and board. Inman, meanwhile, picks his way through the war-torn South, encountering treachery and kindness in equal measures while dodging Home Guard militiamen who become increasingly brutal as the inevitability of Southern defeat becomes clear. Adapted from Charles Frazier's Civil War spin on "The Odyssey," Mighella's handsome, self-conscious epic wears its anti-war sentiments and melancholy reflections on life's bitter ironies on its tattered sleeve. Zellweger's misguided performance, though verging on caricature, is undeniably energetic, but Kidman and Law are chilly performers, and their fundamental remoteness drains the sublimated passion from Inman and Ada's hope-sustaining romance. It also allows the supporting cast to steal the movie out from under them: Kathy Baker as a stoic mountain wife, Ray Winstone as brutal Home Guard leader Teague, Natalie Portman as a desperate widow, Philip Seymour Hoffman as disgraced clergyman Veasey, Giovanni Ribisi as a backwoods weasel and Eileen Atkins as a pragmatic hermit all leave more vivid impressions than the stars.