Woodrow Wilson supposedly said that D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was "history written in lightning." With that in mind, Cold Mountain is whispered in distant thunder. It's the hurt back home, what's left behind, what's deep inside. It throbs and stings. The characters are human-scaled, and are small against the grandeur of mountains, passes, valleys that would be green and thriving if not for distant warfare.

Cold Mountain is epic yet intimate, strange and shell-shocked: there's simmering perfume in Anthony Minghella's (The English Patient) adaptation of Charles Frazier's bestseller. Sometimes Minghella's work seems too intelligent, too thought-through, tilled instead of mulled over. I have no such reservations here. It looks great and sounds great. Cinematographer John Seale, picture and sound editor Walter Murch, soundtrack supervisor T. Bone Burnett and composer Gabriel Yared are integral to the movie's memorable ache. Then there's the acting: some performances are steeped in sorrow (Jude Law) and others are crackerjacks (Renee Zellweger's hillbilly sprite and Natalie Portman's lonely widow). And Nicole Kidman portrays an object of longing, a woman who comes into focus as time passes, as hope is in danger of being smothered. It's lovely and tragic.

In the North Carolina hamlet of Cold Mountain, men await "our war." Inman (Law) and Ada (Kidman) dance closer to each other's bashfulness. They get to tear one kiss from the pages of their unwritten history, and he is gone. The early battle scene is of far greater awfulness than the one in Saving Private Ryan. It is not derivative, but its teeming slaughter is as terrible and horrifying as any seething nightmare canvas of Breughel's or of post-World War II Soviet cinema (I'm thinking particularly of Elem Klimov's Come and See, one great masterpiece of dislocation).

The movie is episodic. Minghella has said the novel intrigued him, as it's a palimpsest, a document that reveals many stories that came before. The movie is conscious of the literature: steeped in the spoken language of the south, embellishing the story, which was in turn borrowed from The Odyssey, among other texts. It is about goodness and madness and badness and red blood spilled upon black soil. Some have faulted Cold Mountain for not being about slavery; I encourage them to go out tomorrow and tell that story themselves, which is not this story, which this story does not pretend to be.

Kidman strikes poses. She is a wisp -- a pallid reed -- unprepared to man a farm. An angry rooster bedevils her. She ought to eat him. She takes it for the Devil himself. Enter Renee Zellweger's Ruby, who will make over the fallow farm: There is a perfect moment where Ruby is revealed as more than a hillbilly routine. She dispatches the rooster. It is sudden and it transforms her friend -- and the film -- into something else, something stronger.

The Alabama accents in the new Tim Burton film Big Fish, like many movies set in the South, are cornpone. I can't vouch for the authenticity of a century and a half ago, but there are cadences to swoon for in Cold Mountain. As a Southerner born and bred, I am both touched and tickled. When a doctor apologizes to a woman entering a hospital full of the fragmented and dying, he quickly drawls, "It's the heat, I'm sorry, they rot." I don't know if it comes from the novel, but it has the poetic blade-edge of the condensed prose of Minghella's friend, Michael Ondaatje. There is an almost superhuman lyricism in both the concentration and poise of the dialogue. Donald Sutherland, as Kidman's father, knows how to spin a line like, "I lost your mother after 22 months, it was enough to fill a life." There is common colloquialism without getting cute: "I wouldn't give an Indian cent. It might turn me hateful."

Lingering images abound, such as the historical echo of a town building festooned with tintypes dangling from strings and ribbons, noting the lost, like the walls of the missing in Manhattan in 2001. Or a heart-stopping tickle like Kidman's fingertips playing over a sack of grain she traded her piano for, as if it were her instrument.

There are emotional complexities. Ray Winstone plays the worst of the Home Guard, the weak men who didn't make it to the front, who enforce and bully back home. There is a terrible and great moment where he listens to the music of several men who he seems ready to slaughter; they're musicians, playing and singing around a campfire in the midst of a dark, dark wood. He turns his head, he does, because he knows the song, he sings along, his eyes brim with tears. But he does not put the gun down.

When Inman and Ada meet again, Kidman is an exaggerated figure of beauty, yet you must forgive it, as John Seale's camera seems to love her almost as much as Inman in his heart after one stolen kiss and dozens of letters that were written but never received.

Melancholy, exquisite, their reunion scene is near perfect. It is a vision of heart, passion and compassion in the most blighted of times. If there is romance, there is hope. If there is desire, there is fulfillment. If there are dreams, we can stay awake. I'm grateful for Minghella's gleaming confidence.

Ice Age Movie Marathon @ Riverfront Park

Wed., Aug. 4, 8-10 p.m. and Wed., Aug. 11, 8-10 p.m.
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