What is this hold that Anthony Minghella seems to have over Harvey Weinstein? After "The English Patient," all but unwatchable now, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," a fine crime story undermined by misplaced casting and slack direction, we are now confronted with Mr. Minghella's turgid adaptation and direction of the Charles Frazier novel about a Confederate deserter in the last months of the Civil War who determines to walk home from Virginia, where he's been wounded, to Cold Mountain, North Carolina, where his sweetheart lives in the increasingly faint hope that he'll return.
I thought the book was just fine up until the last thirty pages, when Frazier tore up everything he'd written and decided to put what might politely be called an ironic ending onto his story, but what would more accurately be called a disaster. We have been following two parallel but separate stories - Inman's painful, dangerous odyssey and Ada's education in the techniques of survival - for the entire book; and when both we and his story demand a resolution commensurate with the structure he's built, he pulls the rug, the floor and the whole foundation out from under us. A decent editor would have suggested - no, demanded - that he stick to his plan and not go off into the neverland of hack romances.
Now Minghella has taken the externals of the book and played up exactly the wrong elements. The story is of Charleston belle Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), who just before the start of the Civil War comes to the mountains of western North Carolina with her minister father (Donald Sutherland) in hopes of restoring his health. In a moment of exchanged glances she meets the shy carpenter Inman (Jude Law) and is attracted to him. But before you can say 'love,' or even 'sex,' and after just one kiss, he goes off to fight. She writes incessantly, he is wounded at the battle of Petersburg, Virginia, in 1864, he deserts and starts his trek home, hiding from the Home Guard who will shoot him on sight.
A good neighbor sends Ada great help in the form of Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger, bringing a desperately needed breath of fresh air to the stultifying atmosphere of the film, in the performance of the year), who teaches Ada how to manage a farm. Meanwhile Inman slogs along, meeting near-disaster every ten minutes, but once getting to spend a chaste night with the widow Sara (Natalie Portman) and next morning saving her from rape and death by marauding Union soldiers.
The problem with Inman, though, as Minghella has written him for the film, is that he is nearly mute. And not only does he not speak, he barely registers any emotions and he is painfully slow to act. About anything. And this is needless: though we can understand his shyness with Ada, he can surely speak to others when he needs to. He just doesn't. As Rodgers and Hammerstein would have put it, Pore Jude is Dead, emotionally. So we never get to empathize with him, never get to understand him, never get to respond in any way. He is a blank. Kidman, who oozes sensuality from every pore, is left dangling by the story's construction. Is this man worthy of such a woman? What can he possibly offer her? If we argue that he's her fantasy-lover, which is possible because she is capable of expanding that brief encounter into a great romance, then we need to learn more about her than simply the letters she sends into the void, with her repeated prayers for his survival and return.
Minghella seems not to have any sense of pace; the film plods along for two and a half hours. Though his editor is the usually excellent Walter Murch, there is little sense of tension building; the moments of danger and death are always sprung on us as a surprise. It doesn't take long for us to learn to anticipate the next one, and the next after that. And then, of all possible endings, both Frazier and Minghella have chosen the one absolute worst, the one that turns the whole film into a disaster. Where's the old Harvey Weinstein when you need him?
P.S. A note to the producer who chose the Carpathian mountains to stand in for the Appalachians: There are no snow-capped peaks in North Carolina.