Cold Mountain's poster at Imax is largely dominated by a scene where the lead actors are locked in a passionate kiss. This might lead you to believe, like it did all those other couples who came to watch the first-show, that Cold Mountain is a romantic story set against the backdrop of a war. Not so. Sure, there's a love-story, but, in this film, it plays second fiddle to the war itself, which occupies center-stage, like a big, fat opera singer.
It's the later half of the 19th century and America is fighting America in a bloody Civil War. Inman (Jude Law) and his friends in rural North Carolina want the war dearly; like many others they see it as the ultimate solution to the brewing North-South conflict. But Inman, who was quite sure this was his life's mission, is not so sure any more after he meets Ada (Nicole Kidman). Love at first sight, a catch in the throat as he must leave to fight, a much-awaited golden kiss and Inman marches off to the battle, with his sweetheart's picture in his pocket.
But after days of fighting and watching his fellow soldiers die, Inman realizes that this isn't the war he and his friends came to fight. They were sent to the battlefield, he says, with a flag and a lie. The lie doesn't hold, and he decides to go home to Ada. But with the Home Guard snapping at his heels, he finds the journey treacherous.
Back home in Cold Mountain, Ada has troubles of her own. She loses her father and the war-rationing puts her in danger of losing her farm too. Hungry, cold and miserable, she lives on the kindness of neighbors, till Ruby (Renee Zellweger) arrives on the scene. Ruby is the only reason you'll smile at all during this film. Strong as an ox and sharp as a tack, she takes no shit from any one, including a bullying rooster. Eventually she whips the farm and its fortunes into shape, not doing such a bad job with Ada either. As the endearingly straight-talking Ruby Zellweger brings great heart to her character; you need no Oscar jury to tell you that.
Meanwhile the entire countryside is under the siege of the Home Guard, which uses every diabolical means to weed out and kill "deserters" (soldiers who have abandoned the war). On his way home Inman comes across a few interesting characters, who save his life and whose lives he saves: a jolly and alarmingly oversexed priest, a reclusive old woman who nurses his wounds, and Natalie Portman in a moving performance as a single mother widowed by the fighting.
The journey back home and the question of survival that dogs his every step pushes Inman to extremes he didn't think himself capable of. As the tortured soldier who can't escape the war anywhere he goes, Jude Law does a fair job. His character only really gets interesting towards the end of the movie. Nicole Kidman plays the lovesick but resigned Ada well, but she's definitely done better.
The movie is based on a novel by Charles Frazier, and according to people who would know, it does justice to the prize-winning book. Perhaps the best part about the movie is that all the characters are scripted with equal care. But the film lacks a certain something that makes it difficult for you to be anything more than a concerned spectator. You watch the war, but, for the most part, are not drawn in.
In this Civil War epic there is one scene, however, that makes you instantly empathize with those times. Maybe because it's a whole lot like these times. Ruby, after her father's been shot in a war that everybody thought would be the solution - "They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say 'Shit it's raining.'"