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Movie Review:

"Cold Mountain"

Here's another film that won't be in general release till later this month -- Christmas Day, in fact -- so perhaps this is the first you've heard of it, and surely the first review.

Seven years ago, Anthony Minghella directed the Oscar-winning "The English Patient", for which he also won "Best Director", as well as the DGA's Best Director award for 1996. Ladies and gentleman, here's your Best Picture of 2003.

I read the novel by Charles Frazier, and so was anxiously awaiting this film. The book is a rich portrait of the South during the Civil War, and the cast is absolutely filled with big names, which, I have to say, gave me a bit of pause, especially considering the most recent bit of miscasting of Nicole Kidman in "The Human Stain". Would I buy her as a southern belle from Charleston who became a tough farm girl? Could I buy pretty-boy Jude Law as a Confederate soldier? And neither is American-born (Law from the UK, Kidman raised in Australia, though she's usually terrific at accents), so would they sound natural doing Southern accents?

None of these things turns out to be important, and though those actors are wonderful in the roles, the star of this show is Renee Zellweger, who plays Ruby, a real tough farm girl who shows up unexpectedly on the farm of Ada Monroe (Kidman) when it appears she's about to starve to death because she can "only arrange flowers, not grow them".

But wait, I'm ahead of myself. Law plays "Inman" (he's generally known only by his last name), a laborer who, like many in the South in 1861, finds himself compelled to join the rebel army and go off to war. He doesn't really believe in the cause, and just before he leaves, he meets Ada, who seems far too "refined" and "upper-class" for him. She's just moved to town (in the "cold mountains" of North Carolina, thus the name of the town and film) with her father, a minister played with great grace by Donald Sutherland, and Inman won't even come inside when they host a party, even though he's been welcomed. There's obvious chemistry between the two, but they only spend a few moments together, with one stolen kiss, before Inman leaves, yet they both vow to stay with each other through the war, which is supposed to be over "in a month".

Three years later, we find Inman at the battle of Petersburg in Virginia, where a huge explosion kills many and wounds him. The battle scenes are graphic, so if you're squeamish, avert your eyes here.

He recuperates, but having seen these horrors, and not really believing in the cause, he decides to escape from the hospital and make his way home. On foot.

In the waning months of the war, there are bounty hunters out and about looking for "deserters" like this, either getting money for them or killing them, and Inman runs into some of these on his walk, in addition to all types of people -- describing them would ruin some of the charming and also horrifying surprises of the film, so I won't.

Meanwhile, Ada is starving after her father dies, and other farms in town are harboring deserters, and you'll nearly cry when you see what happens to the family of Sally (an almost-unrecognizable Kathy Baker). That's when Ruby (Zellweger) shows up, and as I said, the rest of the film is hers. This is a certain Best Supporting Actress nomination; she's terrific. At first she is almost unrecognizable, and that's a credit to her great talent, as someone who has played the sexy Roxie Hart in "Chicago", and the frumpy bachelorette Bridget Jones, and Dorothy in "Jerry Maguire", but can play a character like this, a rough-and-tumble girl who was abused by her father, yet comes to love him (he's a minor but important character in the film too), and fiercely defends those whom she loves. Zellweger is, perhaps, the best actress of our times.

The ending is both ineffably sad, and carries great hope and love. Of this no more should be said. Go see this film when it opens in a couple of weeks. It's the best movie I've seen this year.

AYRating: ****