Those audiences who were unimpressed by the chocolate box prettiness of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient will encounter something slightly tougher in the director's adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain .
There is no soft centre to this story of Inman (Jude Law), a wounded confederate soldier on an Odyssey -influenced journey home to Ada (Nicole Kidman), the sweetheart with whom he has shared scarcely more than a smouldering glance.
Admittedly, the scenes depicting the restoration of Ada's farm, a task instigated by the rootin' tootin' Ruby (Renée Zellweger), have a broadness and whimsicality that plays to the gallery. But even those moments provide a necessary breath of fragrant air in a movie that is fixated on nitty-gritty details, from bodily functions and maggot-infested food to the routine culling and dissection of men and cattle alike.
The protagonists of Minghella's last two films couldn't shut up. In The English Patient , Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), had to know the name of every kind of desert wind or the correct term for the area at the base of the throat, while Tom (Matt Damon) in The Talented Mr Ripley talked his way into the lush life and out of a murder rap.
The part of Inman, on the other hand, will never be prized by drama students as an audition piece. Jude Law, concealed behind a ragged beard, doesn't deliver many sentences in this picture.
It's a performance that hinges on great physicality, not to mention great eyes, and Law purges himself of his usual dandyish flourishes. He looks like an old man, and a new actor.
It's a pensive, passive role, much like Kidman's, and neither actor shows any compunction about turning over individual scenes to the colourful supporting cast, including Ray Winstone as a dutiful sadist, Brendan Gleeson as a fiddler marinated in cheap liquor, Philip Seymour-Hoffman as a corrupt priest and Natalie Portman as a young widow with reserves of fury.
Minghella recreates 19th century Carolina in some majestic Romanian locations, though John Seale's camera is apt to be distracted by the spectacle of a slaughtered chain-gang, or a crop of corpses harvested from the trenches.
Cold Mountain is being talked up as an Oscar favourite, and it would be surprising not to find it squaring up to The Return of the King and the miserable Mystic River next February. Justice will have been done, however, if its legendary film editor, Walter Murch, nabs a statuette.
The film depends on the rhythm of his cross-cutting between the pastoral idyll descending into lawlessness, and the battle grounds that acquire a strange serenity.
At least once, in a dissolve which makes it appear that a dove has launched itself out of a man's gaping neck wound, the talented Mr Murch achieves casual profundity.