Anybody who's listened to the commentary track on the "Talented Mr. Ripley" disc knows that director Anthony Minghella likes to festoon every shot of his films with visual cues that point to a deeper meaning. Apparently concerned that his cleverness might be going over the heads of viewers without DVD players, Minghella this time puts his symbolism so far up front that he might as well be placing it on the end of a stick and suspending it over the audience, 3-D style. One gets an impression that the theme of this literary adaptation (from the work of Charles Frazier) is the conflict between rampant amorality and natural purity in the waning days of a war; at least, that's what the oh-so-subtle image of a blood stain across a white sheet seems to indicate. In case you missed it, the shot is later repeated, with a bed of snow substituting for the defenseless laundry.
For more than two hours, Minghella's (already wildly overrated) romantic epic remains just that horribly pretentious. There's even a blind peanut vendor who dispenses wisdom at no extra charge. (That conceit, we're told, comes directly from Frazier's novel, which is rife with nods to the "Odyssey." If that's true, then the filmed effect is less "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" than simply, "Oh, brother.") Nestled within this folderol is the story of a Confederate deserter (Jude Law) who traverses hill and dale to be reunited with the woman he loves (Nicole Kidman). The trouble is, he's not all that interesting a fellow to begin with, possessed of a mien that's reactive and admittedly nonverbal -- though when he does open his mouth, what comes out is so damn silly that you wish he would clam right up again.
The movie's few pleasures -- like Philip Seymour Hoffman's wickedly funny role as a libidinous Christian minister with a constipation problem -- are all thoroughly transient, and the movie's greatest criticism of the Civil War seems to be that it's keeping those crazy Law and Kidman kids apart. In her first few scenes as a breathy Southern belle, the latter appears bound for a personal best of poorly accented hamminess, but her "work" is soon eclipsed by the arrival of the criminally inept Renée Zellweger as a tomboy who helps Kidman's delicate flower survive the war's brutality. To bring this stereotype to life, Zellweger stomps across the screen, thrusts out her arms and delivers her every line at a hysterical pitch best suited to a hog-calling contest. Whatever she thinks she's doing, it'll make you long for the dramatic subtleties of Granny Clampett on "The Beverly Hillbillies."