Two epic quest stories hit the cinemas within days of each other, both haunted by the devastation of war and both with mythic status in their sights. Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain is a handsome adaptation of Charles Frazier's fine 1997 novel about a soldier who deserts the American Civil War to find a way back to his sweetheart, and features a handful of scenes as eerily impressive as any this director has staged before. But set against the concluding part of The Lord of The Rings it looks a strained and ponderous piece of work, and its realistic portrayal of war-ravaged America seems, paradoxically, less convincing than the fantastical landscape of Middle Earth.
Who would have thought it? Frazier's novel, a weird, almost hallucinatory evocation of suffering and loss, lodged in the consciousness long after it was finished; one felt the exhaustion of war as it oppressed both an individual and a country at large. Finding the balance - the intimate within the epic - is just the sort of challenge Minghella would relish, having navigated a similar journey in The English Patient. The spur to the story is a romance, or rather a thwarted romance. Nicole Kidman plays Ada Monroe, a willowy, genteel minister's daughter who comes to the town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, and, without quite knowing how, falls for a taciturn workhand named Inman (Jude Law). Just as their love seems about to bloom, war is declared and Inman goes off to fight with the Confederates. But Ada promises to wait for him. Three years later, lying half-dead in a squalid army hospital, Inman remembers her promise and, fed up with war, starts walking all the way back to Cold Mountain, and to Ada.
Frazier's story was unusual insofar as Ada and Inman barely know one another before they are parted, yet their communion feels all the more intense for being so short-lived. But it means we have a romance in which the two principals barely have any screen time with one another, a problem Minghella is obliged to solve by making their parallel stories - Ada at home, Inman at war - interesting enough to wish for their convergence. It doesn't really work. Inman's odyssey homewards, while it has moments of danger and excitement, is generally heavy going. Minghella co-ordinates the opening battle scene at Petersburg quite stunningly, first a long pan across soldiers prostrate on the ground, then a huge explosion, and finally a charge by the Union forces into a mist-shrouded crater where they writhe and die under the enemy's gunfire. It's a mesmerising vision of hell, with terrible screams and cries to match.
The picaresque that follows bears traces of an earlier tale of Southern grievance, The Outlaw Josey Wales, though where Clint Eastwood held out a contrite hand to the native American Indians, Cold Mountain remains a fairly white affair: nobody mentions slavery, and black faces are rarely seen. Inman's various encounters on the road are shaped as vignettes, and vary in quality. There's some light comedy in Philip Seymour Hoffman's disgraced preacher, and some quite unintentional comedy in the accent of Eileen Atkins, playing a goatherd who's supposedly from the South - which would be credible if it were South Peckham. I wasn't convinced, either, by Ray Winstone's impersonation of a bully from the Home Guard who leads a murderous pursuit of deserters; the cockney vowels keep slipping through the Southern drawl. On the other hand, Winstone does get one of the best scenes in the movie: having hunted down a fugitive fiddle-player (Brendan Gleason) and his pals to a lonely mountain clearing, he hesitates over their execution when he finds himself moved by an old folk tune recalled from better days. Even in his flinty heart music can strike off sparks of humanity.
While Inman is in the frame Cold Mountain at least moves forward. Back on the home front, however, Ada begins to look increasingly marooned from her surroundings. Despite the fact that local gal Ruby (Renée Zellweger) has apparently versed her in the ways of farming and thriftiness, Nicole Kidman acts - and dresses - as if she's modelling the winter collection for Prada. (There's a particularly fetching black hat and cashmere coat combo towards the end). It's a painful bit of miscasting by Minghella, who may have realised his star was too glamorous by half - a rumour goes that while editing the picture they considered digitally roughing up Kidman's look. As she grows more lustrous, Zellweger grows more raucous, her Beverley Hillbillies accent so grating it could strip paint. I didn't much care for the performance, but at least she had the decency to forgo make-up and look like a farmgirl.
It's left to Jude Law to carry the movie, which he does with a quiet austerity of gesture; much of his suffering seems banked up behind his eyes, and war-weariness hangs on him like a shroud. It speaks well of his versatility that he's as compelling in the role of Riviera playboy (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as he is in the dowdier garb of a Carolina backwoodsman. A shame, though, that the anagnorisis of the movie, literally, the recognition scene, falls so short of the novel's heartstopping pathos, crystallised in the moment Inman "turned back to her and held out his empty hands again and said, If I knew where to go I'd go there". A shame, but not a surprise. The miscalculations here are so obvious that Cold Mountain was never likely to do the book much honour. The eight Golden Globe nominations suggest otherwise, but this 150-minute picture feels quite a footslog.