Anthony Minghella has built his cinematic reputation adapting literary novels for the big screen – unsurprising, perhaps, for a director who started out his career as a university lecturer, playwright and screenwriter. His Oscar-winning version of The English Patient, adapted from Michael Ondaajte’s Booker Prize novel, and his smart, stylish take on Patricia Highsmith’s chameleonic anti-hero in The Talented Mr Ripley, both demonstrated his ability to make vivid cinema from heavyweight literary sources. So it comes as no surprise that his new film is another adaptation of a serious, erudite, prize-winning novel – Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, which won the prestigious American National Book Award in 1997.

Following the success of The English Patient, Minghella is one of the few British directors able to command the confidence of the Hollywood studios and the big budgets and all-star casts which invariably come in tow. His new film certainly has impressive credentials. From its rollcall of stars, to its lavish production design by Dante Ferretti (last seen at work in Gangs of New York) to its creative crew, editor Walter Murch and cinematographer John Seale (who both won Oscars on Minghella’s previous films), Cold Mountain has all the makings of a Big Hollywood Movie – and come the Oscars, it will doubtless receive a superfluity of nominations thanks to its executive producer, Miramax supremo Harvey Weinstein.

The film opens, as all self-respecting epics should, with a bang. At the 1864 battle of Petersburg, a ragtag bunch of Confederate soldiers await the dawn attack of the better-trained, better-armed, better-dressed Unionist army. Unbeknownst to the Confederates, a team of Unionist sappers has planted a massive charge of dynamite under their lines, which at the given signal, goes up like several hundred 4th of Julys and plunges the film into a maelstrom of smoke, blood and burning cordite. Minghella’s camera ranges through the ensuing death and destruction with an unstinting eye, producing a bravura battle sequence which plays like a Civil War Saving Private Ryan, as white slaughters white, brother slaughters brother, and just in case you missed the point, black man slaughters Native American. From somewhere in the chaos crawls Inman (Jude Law), a simple Southerner of few words who, like many of his friends, has been hoodwinked into fighting a war he barely understands.

Flashback to the backwater North Carolina town of Cold Mountain in the 1860s, where we follow the burgeoning romance between Inman and Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman), an urbane, educated city girl displaced to Cold Mountain by her ailing father, Reverend Monroe (Donald Sutherland). Just as the country at large is split by the opposing values of North and South, so Inman and Ada find themselves divided by circumstance; while he is whisked off to war in search of glory, death and defense of the confederacy, Ada finds herself, like Inman, alone in an existence she scarcely knows.

The film then cuts back and forth between the twin stories as both characters endeavour to survive in their new situations, clinging to the faint dream of a mutual return. Following the unexpected death of Reverend Monroe, Ada falls into penury, lacking the means to support herself or cultivate her own land; enter Ruby Thewes, her earthy country-girl opposite (played in a rootin’-tootin’ down-home Southern style by Renée Zellweger which almost borders on parody). Together the two women forge an unlikely friendship as the community degenerates around them, discovering mutual support, love and knowledge, as women have done throughout history in the absence of men at war.

Meanwhile Inman, having escaped from the military hospital where he has been recovering from his wounds, sets out on his own homeward Odyssey, signing his own death warrant as a military deserter in the process. His cross-country journey is chock-full of Homeric overtones: along the way, he meets a debauched preacher (played with typical sleazy style by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a drunken hick (Giovanni Ribisi) and his gaggle of lecherous sirens, a wizened old crone (Eileen Atkins) who tends his wounds, and an abandoned war widow (Natalie Portman) struggling, Penelope-like, to support herself and her child in the midst of a vicious, divisive conflict.

The story essentially becomes a microcosmic version of the wider war, illustrating the fundamental schisms between ideals and reality – that the search for peace, love, equality, justice, and happiness invariably finds conflict, barbarity, pain, death and hate. Like Charles Frazier’s novel, it’s a mythic story made in brutally realistic terms, where moments of transcendence and tenderness are constantly interrupted by the harsh demands of existence – symbolised by corrupt landowner Teague (Ray Winstone) and his band of lawless lawmen, who spread death and despair around Cold Mountain with impunity. Several of the Teague sequences are difficult to watch – one in particular, when he discovers two deserters hiding out at their parents’ home, will stay with you long after the credits roll.

As with all Minghella’s films, it’s beautifully shot, making full use of the American landscape to provide the backdrop for the story and inform its narrative – mist rising from winding creeks, snow falling through black pines, and light sweeping down mountainsides all play their part to in creating the film’s powerful atmosphere. For the most part, the performances are intelligent and well-observed (though Renée Zellweger’s and Ray Winstone’s accents soon begin to grate for different reasons) – Brendan Gleeson is particularly good as Ruby’s fiddle-playing hobo father (and look out for Jack Black of White Stripes fame as his guitar-picking sidekick).

But at its heart, Cold Mountain remains a difficult film to engage with. Though the imagery and story are elegantly realised, the flashback structure could have been more imaginative, and the lead characters are too enigmatic to identify with – Nicole Kidman’s performance is entirely overshadowed by her country bumpkin companion, while Jude Law’s square-jawed Inman remains impenetrable to the final frame. Cold Mountain is a film glimpsed through several layers of frost and ice and winter chill; it reminded me a little of Ryan’s Daughter, a film so entranced with the bleakness and sterility of rural Irish life at the beginning of the C20th, it forgets to tell a story the audience can care about. Like the book on which it’s based, this is a sober, serious, austere piece of cinema – so don’t be surprised if Cold Mountain leaves you a little…well, cold.