As a rule, critically acclaimed novels don't get made into blockbuster movies. Certainly, there are a few Pulitzer winners that have found their way to the big screen, such as The Shipping News and The Hours. The National Book Award has delivered even less adaptations in recent years, with The Shipping News and All the Pretty Horses making the list during the 1990s. But Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, which won the 1997 National Book Award, seemed destined for celluloid soon after it was published. A picaresque blend of Homeric imagery, Faulkneresque detail, and Joycean mechanics, the simple story of a Confederate soldier's long walk from the field of battle to his small mountain town proved to be a bestseller that connected with both critics and popular audiences. And even if Miramax barely cleared a profit on their $83 million investment (and failed to capitalize on its seven Oscar nominations), its subtle story and Anthony Minghella's skilled direction are sure to make it a popular DVD purchase over the next few years. Jude Law stars as Frazier's Ulyssian hero Inman, a quiet woodworker from the North Carolina town of Cold Mountain. Inman is known for saying little and keeping to himself, but in 1861 two events transform his existence. A Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland) moves to the mountain climate for his health, accompanied by his daughter Ada (Nicole Kidman), who soon takes a liking to Inman and begins to draw him out of his shell. And North Carolina secedes from the Union, which means every healthy young man in Cold Mountain is conscripted to join the Confederate Army. Inman believes that his tour won't last longer than a few months, and Ada offers to wait for him. But as time passes, Inman is drawn deeper into the war. Reverend Monroe dies, leaving Ada to look after the farm by herself. Unable to do so, she finds help from local girl Ruby Thewes (Renée Zellweger). But Ada always takes the time to write Inman letters, even though she has no idea where he is or if he's alive. In fact, Inman is alive barely. Shot in the throat during a violent skirmish, he receives one of Ada's letters in the hospital and decides to become a deserter, even though it will take him months to walk back to Cold Mountain, and he has no idea what he will find when he gets there.
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Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, Cold Mountain has the feel and scope of an epic film, which makes Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) a logical choice for the helm, being a favorite in the Miramax stable. However, it should come as no surprise that Minghella's original rough-cut of the film ran at five hours, and it took some effort and pain to bring it down to half that size. No fan of test screenings but admitting to their use, Minghella notes that he thinks there are still a few abrupt shifts in the story that couldn't be ironed out due to the time constraints, which can only make one wonder if Miramax would consider releasing a longer version of Cold Mountain for DVD down the road. But even though it feels like an abridgment of Frazier's dense novel, Minghella's film is involving, exciting, and at times moving. Jude Law as Inman delivers the sort of performance that easily can go unrecognized, simply because Inman is a man of few words, and one who avoids conflict. Understanding Inman is the heart of the novel his simple nobility, his deep sense of right and wrong, his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others and Law's performance here is one to watch again and again, to see how a skilled actor can convey a richness of character with only a few words and gestures. The two leading women, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger, deliver more straightforward performances, but Kidman as the heartbroken Ada never strikes a false note, and Zellweger's earthy spunk is entertaining and, being the most vociferous cast member, shows why she was the sole Oscar winner on screen (don't expect the Academy to reward a restrained performance anytime soon). The supporting actors are a welcome crew, with Sutherland as Reverend Monroe, Philip Seymour Hoffman as an Epicurean reverend, Giovanni Ribisi as a moonshiner, Natalie Portman as a heartbroken war-widow, Brendan Gleeson as Ruby's drunkard father, and rocker Jack White as folk singer Georgia. It's all pulled together with a conclusion that some will find obvious, others perhaps disappointing or overly melodramatic, but true to the book (as Minghella is throughout). Nonetheless, it's not the conclusion but the journey itself that makes Cold Mountain worth repeat viewings. Buena Vista/Miramax's two-disc DVD release features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements on Disc One include a commentary from Minghella and editor Walter Murch, while extras on Disc Two include the production diary "Climbing Cold Mountain" (73 min.), 10 deleted scenes, the live performance "The Words and Music of Cold Mountain" (73 min.), the featurette "A Journey to Cold Mountain" (29 min.), a look at the music of "The Sacred Harp" (4 min.), storyboards, and promos for other Buena Vista/Miramax titles. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.