Dir: Anthony Minghella. US. 2003. 157 mins.

There are a number of coups which writer/director Anthony Minghella has scored with his long-awaited film of the best-selling novel Cold Mountain, not least of which is to soften the focus on the American Civil War - a period in history which has consistently turned off international audiences. Instead, his expertly-paced, profoundly affecting romantic epic highlights human bonds of love and friendship amid the carnage and lawlessness of that time.

Bearing a relevance to today's war-scarred world which will work strongly in its favour, Cold Mountain is further proof of Minghella's unique capacity to get right to the emotional heart of characters and relationships. The consummately elegant film-making, outstanding production values and exceptional cast will all contribute to the film's success with critics and awards bodies. That in turn will make Cold Mountain a must-see movie for audiences along the lines of Out Of Africa, Dances With Wolves or Minghella's own The English Patient.

A huge risk for Walt Disney-owned Miramax Films, the $90m picture was never a dead cert despite Minghella's fine pedigree. With an untested leading man in Jude Law, a leading lady, Nicole Kidman, whose track record is anything but commercial and a milieu which was almost done to death in one film 65 years ago (Gone With The Wind), Cold Mountain has had the industry gossiping for months. Could this be one mountain too high for Miramax'

But what Minghella got right here - as he did in his superb adaptations of The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley - is the screenplay. He translates the rhythms of Charles Frazier's often turgid novel into film with admirable fluency, removing any longueurs while distilling the essence of what is so powerful in the story. Unlike Gangs Of New York last Christmas, Cold Mountain manages both to capture its time period and tell a thrilling story. Its domestic gross should exceed the $78m taken by Gangs and its international gross will come close to Gangs' $113m.

Of all the epics around this season, Cold Mountain contains the only grand love story, another element which will help it at the box office, delighting female audiences who will tire of the endless battle in Master And Commander, The Last Samurai or The Return Of The King. And it's a beautifully calibrated love story between a sheltered minister's daughter Ada Monroe and a handsome labourer called Inman who have just a few meetings and one kiss before he goes off to war. That is all it takes, however, to light the fire of the story since in the hardship of the war, each comes to represent to the other a sense of home and pleasure.

The story starts at the Battle of Petersburg in Virginia where Confederate soldier Inman (Law) is shot and severely wounded. While recuperating in a hospital, he remembers meeting Ada (Kidman) in his hometown of Cold Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina three years earlier. She has recently arrived from Charleston with her minister father (Sutherland) and discovered from a neighbour Sally (Baker) that Inman is taken with her. The two are obviously attracted to each other but it is only when war is declared and Inman is leaving that they kiss.

While Inman is away, Ada is having struggles of her own. Her father has died leaving her in charge of the farm, Black Cove, but she possesses no practical skills to run it and is sliding into destitution when a feisty mountain drifter named Ruby (Zellwger) appears on her doorstep courtesy of Sally. Ruby offers to restore the farm to productivity as long as Ada helps and the two are equals. They strike up a working relationship and close friendship.
Meanwhile, disillusioned with the war and the Confederate cause, Inman escapes one night from his hospital bed and starts the long trek back to Ada, although he runs the risk of being shot for desertion at every turn. Along the way, he has experiences with an assortment of characters including a randy preacher (Hoffman), a caring mountain woman (Atkins), and a new mother and widow (Portman) who gives him shelter.

Back at Black Cove Farm, Ada and Ruby have bumped into Stobrod (Gleeson), Ruby's estranged father who abandoned her as a child and who is now hiding out in the mountains. He introduces them to his friends including Georgia (White), to whom Ruby takes a shine, and his music which he claims has stopped his errant ways.

The final 45 minutes of the film revolve around the return of Inman to Cold Mountain, his reunion with Ada on the snow-covered mountain itself and the intervention of a group of amoral renegades, led by the villainous Teague (Winstone), out to kill deserters.

There are some problems with the film. The episodic nature of Inman's journey in the book is duplicated here, although Minghella moves each encounter along briskly, and it is somewhat distracting to find a famous actor at every turn, whether it be Melora Walters or Jena Malone in tiny roles or Ribisi and Hoffman in bigger ones.

That said, the lead performances of Law and Kidman are outstanding and both throw themselves into the characters in a most un-movie star-like way. Law discards any vanity to embody the war-weary Inman, a man of few words whose very soul is wrecked by the death around him. Kidman's restrained performance reflects the subtle shifts at work in her character; their reunion scenes together are highly effective. Zellweger, by contrast, plays Ruby with a touch too much country bumpkin burlesque to be three-dimensional.

Awards nominations for the film, the actors and the exceptional production especially Dante Ferretti's production design and Walter Murch's editing will be plentiful.

Prod cos: Mirage Enterprises, Bona Fide Productions.
US dist: Miramax Films.
Int'l sales: Miramax International
Exec prods: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Osher, Iain Smith.
Prods: Sydney Pollack, William Horberg, Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa.
Scr: Anthony Minghella, from the novel by Charles Frazier.
DoP: John Seale.
Prod des: Dante Ferretti.
Ed: Walter Murch.
Mus: Gabriel Yared.
Main cast: Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zellweger, Donald Sutherland, Ray Winstone, Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Giovanni Ribisi, Natalie Portman, Kathy Baker, James Gammon, Eileen Atkins, Charlie Hunnam, Jack White, Jena Malone, Lucas Black, Ethan Suplee