Frazier's working model was Homer's Odyssey, in which battle-weary Odysseus makes his way back from the killing to his beloved Penelope. But the North Carolina novelist also called upon sources closer to home. The troubled hero of book and movie, a wounded Confederate soldier named W.P. Inman, is based on Frazier's own great-great uncle, who in 1865 walked home 300 miles from a military hospital in Virginia. As portrayed here by the magnetic Law, Inman is a disillusioned warrior clinging to dreams of the world he left behind in Cold Mountain, North Carolina. "If I had goodness," he laments, "I lost it."
Kidman, who plays Inman's faithful belle, Ada Monroe, with just the right mixture of stunned bafflement (she has no practical skills) and pluck (she learns to survive), takes advantage of the chance to stretch her acting muscles. Played out in dueling prewar and end-of-war time frames, Inman and Ada's love affair personifies the desire of a divided nation in critical ferment -- gravely damaged and unfulfilled but brimming with passionate intensity.
Minghella is bold enough to begin his film with a pivotal event not depicted in the book -- the Civil War's infamous 1864 Battle of the Crater. A disaster for the Union that took 6,300 lives in all, the battle is reproduced here in all its gory horror -- a nightmare of mud, fire and blood in which Northern infantrymen, having detonated a huge mine beneath the Confederate fortifications, are trapped in the vast pit the explosion has ripped in the earth and slaughtered wholesale by the enemy above. It's a scene that presages the appalling carnage of World War I, and it's also the traumatizing event that finally pushes Inman over the edge, stirring him to desert.
Meanwhile, in the home-front sections of the film, the French-speaking, ill-equipped Ada learns to make do with the crucial help of a salty farmer's daughter, Ruby Thewes (rambunctious Renée Zellweger), whose skills include rooster killing and fence mending -- essential amid the deprivations of war.
Cinematographer John Seale (The English Patient, Rain Man) gives us arrestingly grim views of war and ruin; his shot of a frost-glazed corpse on the morning after an ambush seems to spring straight out of Stephen Crane. Production designer Dante Ferretti, who's done five films with Martin Scorsese, obsesses on every period detail, and Ann Roth's costumes -- especially Kidman's wasp-waisted crinolines -- are masterful. Gabriel Yared's haunting score is the perfect complement to the period-accurate folk songs selected and arranged by bluesman T-Bone Burnett, some of them performed onscreen as a kind of Greek chorus to the film's tragedies, large and small.
In the end, what Minghella has wrought is a nearly perfect drama of love and war, a fluent, frightening and beautiful epic. It's a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, as intelligent as it is harrowing.