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Heavy Homerian epic

He swept the Oscars for 1996 with "The English Patient". Now British director Anthony Minghella, brings another complex bestseller to the screen. But will "Cold Mountain" prove to be another personal peak, asks ANAND PARTHASARATHY.

ONE OF the surprises thrown up by last month's Academy Awards nomination list was the absence from the Best Picture category, of "Cold Mountain", the sweeping epic film set in the final phase of the American Civil War. True, director Anthony Minghella is there, among the five contenders for Best Director and two of the film's three main stars have also been nominated: Fellow Briton Jude Law plays the Confederate soldier who deserts the Southern army when it looks like having lost, to make a long and arduous journey home to his love (Nicole Kidman). This earns him a Best Actor nomination. Renee Zellwegger who plays Kidman's tomboyish companion-helper is in position to repeat her Golden Globes triumph: she is short-listed for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

The film has garnered five other nominations for categories like cinematography, editing, musical score and original songs. Had "Cold Mountain" made it to the Best Picture nominations list, it would have been in serious reckoning for many of these non-acting Oscars. As things stand, the film which is based on a best selling 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, will be lucky if it turns two or more of the acting/directing nominations into Oscars, at month end. Why? Because, heavy Homerian epics - albeit updated - are not the stuff of an Oscar run at a time when voters look desperately for the `feel good' factor. Yet, Nicole Kidman's performance as the spunky southerner, Ada Monroe, who waits and waits for her lover to return, even while surviving in a war-torn country, has been compared to that of Vivien Leigh in that biggest of Civil War epics, "Gone With the Wind".

This may be over generous - through no fault of the Australian actress: the story does not offer her any comparable breadth of canvas. In fact, it comes as no surprise that Renee Zellwegger as her helpmeet Ruby, has already grabbed an acting award and is in the reckoning for another: Her breezy performance comes as a relief from the film's heavy goings-on for most of its 150 minute length. It begins with a graphically shot battle scene - but after "Saving Private Ryan" we have become used to such visceral visual openings and indeed it seems to be the fashion to depict war time violence in as graphic a manner as possible. Remember the bone-crunching, head-chopping bouts in "Braveheart"? The long journey home, of Inman, the character played by Jude Law, is peppered with obstacles - and the occasional warm, human episode when someone of the likes of Natalia Portman, playing a war widow, are around.

Seasoned critics like Roger Ebert have remarked on the small number of scenes when the principals, Kidman and Law, are together: Audiences these days have short attention spans and can't relate to lovers who are apart for years on end. In fact their stories are almost parallel episodes which coalesce only towards the end. For Americans, "Cold Mountain" is central to their heritage. It remains to be seen how the film, for all its grandeur of concept and the epic treatment, will fare here, where popularity at the box office is mostly a matter of more bangs for your buck.

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