• a Civil War South variation on Odysseus's return to Ithaca
• an implausible romance between Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law)
• the horrors of war which largely explain Inman's desertion (for many of the same reasons why John Dunbar flees from "civilization" in Dances with Wolves)
• an estranged, indeed dysfunctional relationship between Ruby (Renee Zellweger) and her father Stobrod Thewes (Brendan Thewes)
• the abusive and oppressive, at times vicious Home Guard in the Cold Mountain (NC) area under the absolute control of Teague (Ray Winstone)
• Ada's severely difficult adjustment to the Civil War's impact on her and her father, as well as her struggles to keep her farm
Of course, there are also several related story lines (sub plots, actually) but these six receive most of Zinghella's attention. As indicated earlier, I think he attempts to cover too much within the parameters of a commercial film, even one with a running time of 155 minutes which this one has.
Ada and Inman spend almost no time together before he departs for the war. They are indeed an odd couple: she is a reticent, cultured, proper beauty (the archetypical Southern Belle) and he is also reticent, almost to the point of being mute but lacks her culture and refinement. As I observed their brief and awkward interaction in the film, there seemed to be almost no chemistry between them, perhaps because there was little chemistry between Kidman and Law. My hunch (only a hunch) is that Inman's revulsion to the horrors of war rather than his attraction to Ada explains his obsession to return "home." That is, what he flees is a much greater motivation than is what (who) awaits him. One man's opinion.
All that said, I think Zellweger deserved her Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role. I also think the cinematography (John Seale) and musical score (Gabriel Yared) are especially effective. The opening sequence which includes a defining moment, indeed an epiphany for Inman, is masterfully presented. It invites comparisons with the final sequence in Glory. Cold Mountain has memorable moments and some excellent performances. For reasons indicated, however, I think the film falls short of greatness for many of the same reasons that other recent films have. (Gangs of New York, for example.) More often than not, less really can be more.