In sweet homage to the 1934 French classic L'Atalante, Anthony Minghella's intimate epic Cold Mountain features an early scene in which the heroine is lowered down a well, where she's told that she can glimpse her future. What appears in the rippling water is an abstract blob, but she chooses to see it as an apparition, foretelling that her great love will return to her. With his first-rate adaptations The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella has proven that he excels at this sort of swooning romanticism, and at presenting characters with the imagination and heart to sustain their feelings without much nourishment. A few stolen kisses are all that bind Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain, but that's enough reason for Minghella to mount a sumptuous Civil War drama around them, placing love on a plane roughly equal to that of the forging of a nation. Working from Charles Frazier's Odyssean novel, Minghella doesn't quite wrangle the many disparate episodes that litter his sprawling canvas, but his tactile feeling for the period and the menagerie of characters allows for moments of unexpected poignancy and power. Amid a budding Confederate enclave in the Carolina mountains, an unlikely attraction draws Kidman, a wealthy and educated Southern belle, to Law, a soft-spoken laborer. But their brief courtship ends when the town's able men are sent off to war. As defeat grows imminent for the South, a wounded, disillusioned Law flees his hospital bed and embarks on the long journey home, encountering new friends and foes while dodging waves of bounty hunters looking to punish deserters. Meanwhile, Kidman struggles to adjust to the homestead after her preacher father (Donald Sutherland) dies, but she gets some help from the tough-willed Renée Zellweger, a straight-talking country bumpkin who whips the farm into shape. Zellweger's showy turn initially injects some amusing local color into the otherwise serious film, but she also upstages the more taciturn Kidman, which knocks the central relationship a little off balance. Other performances are more understated and generous in spirit, such as Brendan Gleeson as Zellweger's estranged father, who subtly mines for redemption through his music, and Natalie Portman as a widowed young mother who coaxes Law into some sadly ephemeral role-playing. Though Law and Kidman spend much of the movie apart, Minghella and ace editor Walter Murch arrange their interweaving subplots like a running dialogue between two lovers, each compelled to survive on the thin hope that they'll be reunited. It's an irresistible romantic premise, which Cold Mountain whisks passionately and elegantly to an enveloping scale.