'Cold Mountain' Lacks Sizzle

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

NICOLE KIDMAN and Jude Law are walking, talking cadavers in love in "Cold Mountain." They shuffle through this handsome adaptation of Charles Frazier's celebrated novel like romantic living dead in period costume. You wonder if this is an epic romance or a ghost story.

It's unfortunate, because just about everything else about "Cold Mountain" is involving enough. Writer-director Anthony Minghella has assembled a visually impressive production that gives us a sense of the Civil War that took so many lives and left a whole culture devastated. And almost everyone else in the cast but the leads is terrific, particularly Renee Zellweger as a hardscrabble drifter who takes immediate command of the movie.

In a North Carolina mountain community in the 1860s, Ada Monroe (Kidman) falls in love with Inman (Law), an impossibly angelic, laconic man. But as soon as their mutual attraction becomes obvious, the Civil War intervenes. Naturally, Inman goes to fight, but he's injured in battle. Refusing to linger in his hospital bed, he undertakes a dangerous journey home, intending to reunite with Ada. But the way home is fraught with danger for deserters such as Inman.

While Inman is taken up with his ordeals, the city-bred Ada -- forced to take over the farm of her deceased father (Donald Sutherland) -- does her best to survive with no experience and no strong hands to help her. Things change when Ruby (Zellweger), a penniless but forceful stranger, passes through. She knows a thing or two about managing a farm. In no time, she takes over.

I mean that in more ways than one. Zellweger chews up the scenery around Kidman. She lays waste to all surrounding structures and vegetation. You almost expect Kidman to slap her for sheer effrontery. This is good and not so good. Zellweger's performance only serves to point out the charisma missing in the two stars.

Neither Kidman nor Law has registered much of a body temperature at the best of times. Even Kidman's finest performances seem to have a frosty tinge about them. Here, things are no different. As Ada, she's picturesque in her elegant, I'll-always-have-Tara suffering. But dramatically, she's morgue-slab blue. She's meant to be a Dixie spin on Penelope, the wife of the mythic Greek hero Odysseus who maintains a home and wards off a host of ardent suitors for 10 years until her husband's return. But in the end, Kidman merely made me think of Lady Penelope, a classy character in a 1960s British television series called "Thunderbirds." Incidentally, the characters in that show were all marionettes.

As for Law, his stunning good looks and almost catatonic demeanor suggest a master-race automaton. He's mighty purty as he fights his way back to his darling, but there's nothing about him to warm to, and therefore little to move you. He's poster art.

In a movie where passionate love is supposed to connect two souls through a war of blood, guts and tragedy, this marquee chilliness presents a problem. It makes it hard to lose yourself in the movie. But hey, it's about making $40 million-plus on the first weekend, right?

Honorable mentions should go to Ray Winstone as the scheming Teague, who has his eye on the single Miss Monroe; the wonderfully entertaining Philip Seymour Hoffman as a fallen preacher who makes personal survival his new religion; and Brendan Gleeson, one of the world's best male actors on the strength of the 1998 "The General" alone, who must content himself here with a relatively minor role as Ruby's cheery fiddler of a father. Thanks to Zellweger, the supporting actors and Minghella's direction, "Cold Mountain" manages to stay watchable. It's enough of a spectacle to enjoy. It's too bad the stars are little more than serviceable and give the movie title an irony it could certainly do without.

COLD MOUNTAIN (R, 154 minutes) -- Contains sex scenes, violence and scenes of emotional intensity. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company