O Rebel, Where Art Thou? 

A Civil War for the New Age.

In Cold Mountain, N.C., in the days before the outbreak of the war, romance swiftly blooms between Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman). He’s a brooding farmhand and she’s a preacher’s daughter, but surprisingly, no one, not even Ada’s father (Donald Sutherland), seems to regard their difference in status as particularly interesting. Although they barely know one another, they remain devoted through three years of separation, until Inman can stand it no longer, deserts from the Confederate army and begins his odyssey home. While he struggles to find his way, Ada faces ruin and starvation, but is taught how to tend her now overgrown farm by a wild but extraordinarily capable misfit (Renée Zellweger). While Inman dodges everyone in a uniform and falls in with hill folk who could have stepped out of “Deliverance,” Ada fends off the real villains of the piece, a murderous band of Confederate home guards scouring the land for runaway soldiers.

Among these scalawags is a blond, blue-eyed killer, half-Brad Pitt and half-Nazi, who at one point back flips off a split-rail fence before exuberantly shooting a teenage deserter dead. For a moment it’s as if we’re watching the Joker starring in “Killing Private Ryan,” and this bizarre and completely unbelievable Hollywood moment is typical of Minghella’s disregard for the stern realities the film is supposed to honor.

Nowhere is that disregard more apparent than in the treatment of race. Except for a couple of throwaway lines and a plot point here and there, the whole question of slavery and even the very existence of blacks in America have basically been suppressed. One reason may be that the presence of slaves would thrust our white Southern protagonists into a moral and psychological swamp.

Such complexities — that is, the real tragedy and murk of history — are not for Minghella, who serves up simple melodrama without a shred of ambiguity. Although the movie would have us believe that it’s undoing the mythic distortions of “Gone with the Wind,” Inman and the slaveholding Ada (whose slaves, of course, we never see) are no more tainted by their acquiescence to evil than are Scarlett and Rhett.

History is the great enemy of sentimentality, and when he has to choose, Minghella ends up plumping for sentiment. He tries to inoculate himself against the charge of mawkishness by punctuating the proceedings with scenes of sometimes overplayed depravity and barbarism, but ultimately these elements are there only to set off the cinematic splendor of his protagonists. In the course of a very long two-and-a-half hours we witness the calamitous Union assault on Petersburg, hear the screams of a mother tortured for harboring her deserter son, and meet a randy, homicidal preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in a campy, tossed-off performance). Nevertheless, the gooey heart of the movie consists of lines like this one of Inman’s: “You wake up, and your ribs are bruised from thinking so hard on somebody. What do you call that?” How about overwriting?

Kidman and Law look great, but the consistently shallow, clichéd dialogue prevents them from turning in memorable performances, and their romance is strangely anemic. Zellweger, on the other hand, tears into the role of Ada’s guide like a character actor of another generation, a hayseed Thelma Ritter. Looking and speaking as if her head were about to explode, her Ruby Thewes, unlike Scarlett O’Hara’s wartime servant, does know about birthing babies, splitting rails, rotating crops and everything else. She’s a figure of formidable female power, and it’s sad to watch the film relentlessly prod her into its idea of True Womanhood. She must learn to cry; she needs a man. This transformation is typical of what ails “Cold Mountain” as a whole: Minghella’s need to turn even the most resistant, flinty material into mush that’s palatable to the enlightened of the New Age. ** S

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