Cold Warriors: Nicole Kidman and the farnhand she pines for, Jude Law.Photo: Phil Bray

Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, which he adapted from Charles Frazier’s novel, has the big, glossy feel of a Hollywood epic that’s been worked up by experts. The costumes from the Civil War era look authentic down to the inseams, the firearms are museum-quality, and fog rolls down off the mountains right on cue. It’s a movie that, like the novel, very much wants to be mythic—an American version of The Odyssey. But Minghella, as he demonstrated in The English Patient, is at his least interesting when he thinks big. Cold Mountain has some marvelous, intimate moments and a real feeling, at times, for the loss that war engenders, but it also has more than its share of hokum—which would be more entertaining if the hokum were juicier. But Minghella is a very serious sort: Everything in this movie, even the humor, is meant to serve a higher purpose.

Using a crosscutting structure sprinkled with flashbacks, Minghella introduces us to three people whose fates intertwine. Ada (Nicole Kidman) is a southern belle newly arrived in a farming community in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains; she and Inman (Jude Law), a local workhand, are sweet on each other but don’t do much about it except exchange tintypes and pleasantries (and a smooch) before he joins the Confederate Army. Left alone on her father’s farm, fearing attack, Ada is joined by Ruby (Renée Zellweger), a no-nonsense drifter who immediately tackles the food-shortage problem by twisting a troublesome rooster’s head clean off. She keeps Ada sane while Ada pines for Inman—who, unknown to her, is enduring a Homeric series of trials in order to return to her. Badly wounded in the Siege of Petersburg, Virginia, and captured for a time by a Confederate officer and put on a chain gang, Inman acquires the shaggy, ragged look of a suffering martyr. In the time-honored tradition of mythic movie heroes, he doesn’t say a whole lot. It’s not shell shock, really—in his pre-battle scenes with Ada, he’s just about as blank. (In the book, it was clear that Inman felt he had come to his senses by leaving the war.) The assumption must be that these guys would sound ordinary if they opened up. Why be a man when you can be an Everyman?

Because Inman is such a holy lump, it falls to some of the supporting players to enliven his pilgrimage, notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as a randy, disgraced preacher and Eileen Atkins as a hard-bitten goat keeper. (She might be part goat herself.) Meanwhile, back on the farm, things are a bit more spirited with Ada—except that, like Inman, she is presented as an idealization of agony and survival. With her perfect teeth and flawless alabaster skin, she looks like a marble saint. Not always, though: Striding about all in black, with a smart black hat, she might be modeling for Prada. It’s difficult to ponder hardship and starvation while all this preening is going on. Fortunately, Zellweger keeps Kidman (reasonably) honest; their scenes together have a convivial, feminine vitality—a resonance. Zellweger’s Ruby is more than comic relief; she’s relief for the soul.

Although he provides almost no political context for the Civil War, Minghella is saying that War Is Not the Answer. This message is explicit enough that, at the screening I attended, the audience cheered several times at what they clearly believed to be parallels to the current Iraq situation. They were cheering the perception that, as a way to solve humankind’s ills, bloodshed is excruciatingly unnecessary. (If there was any doubt in my mind about this, a Q&A session afterward with the director confirmed it.) For Minghella, the horrors of violence drive good people to come together and prevail. It’s a sentimental vision that he can’t quite pull off because, as it turns out, the scenes of brutality in this movie are far more effective than its passages of reconciliation. The Siege of Petersburg is a burnt-sienna panorama of massed, broken bodies. In another sequence, Ada’s neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker) looks on aghast while the vigilante-style Confederate Home Guard invades her farm and obliterates her future. We can fully believe that this strong, proud woman would be stricken mute by the devastation. Later on, over a campfire, this same ragtag regiment sniffs out a pack of musician deserters, including Ruby’s errant father (Brendan Gleeson) and an amiable half-wit (Ethan Suplee), and slowly moves in for the kill. It’s a scene worthy of Peckinpah, and it contains a terrifying, lyrical moment when the regiment’s leader (Ray Winstone) suddenly finds himself moved by the plaintive folk air the musicians are forced to sing before he has them executed.

At the heart of Cold Mountain—what redeems it—is the collision between the natural beauty of the landscape and the blood soaking through it. This vision is what stays with you after the film’s star turns and moral lessons have faded. Minghella is a curious combination of romantic and didact, but he has a saving grace: He wants us to know the world can be a better place, but he doesn’t flinch from showing just how bad it can be.

The word trilogy, which was handed such a black eye by the Matrix movies, is restored to its proper dignity with Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It all comes together here. Peter Jackson directed the movies one after the other over a period of about a year (except for some pickups and reshoots), and perhaps this explains why they have not only thematic but emotional unity. Taken as a whole, this series derived from the Tolkien books is without parallel as a sustained piece of fantasy-fiction adaptation. I would not want a steady diet of such films—after a while, the invasions of the orcs, the severed heads catapulted into sky-high fortresses, the giant spider with its acidic pincers, and all the bloody rest of it wore me down. (Never forget that Jackson made his cult reputation directing gross-out movies.) But Jackson is rare among the makers of epic movies in that he knows how to do the small stuff, too. The Return of the King has “heart”—how else could it pump out all that blood?

I wouldn’t recommend watching it, however, without having seen the first two, even though the set pieces can be enjoyed as pure theater. The film is very plot-heavy. Let’s just say that the hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) makes his final journey to Mount Doom, the Ring in tow, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) wages war to distract Frodo’s enemies and becomes the rightful king of Gondor. For the audience, the return of Ian McKellen’s white-on-white wizard, Gandalf; John Rhys-Davies’s bristly bearded dwarf, Gimli; Sean Astin’s Sam, Frodo’s loyal soul mate; and the sputtery, grotesque Gollum (a computer-generated Andy Serkis) is like a convocation of old friends. I’m afraid that Liv Tyler’s elf princess, Arwen, still doesn’t do it for me—she looks like she belongs not in Middle-earth but in a soft-focus Breck commercial—but then again, I’m not Aragorn. Maybe you have to splatter squadrons of creepy-crawlies before you can properly appreciate her charms.

With George Lucas’s empire showing its age, Jackson seems poised to become the new Lord of the Ka-chings. In the past, he indicated that he wanted to get back to microbudget zombie movies, but I never believed he would—not even Frodo has the willpower to resist Hollywood’s siren song. Sure enough, he’s gearing up to remake King Kong with Naomi Watts. I’m there.

In Mona Lisa Smile, set in 1953, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Watson, an art-history professor from California who lands a teaching job at Wellesley. From the look of things, she appears to have crossed over from the Brave New World to a cloistered institution that’s almost as creepy as Hogwarts. The students in her class have minds as corseted as their figures; it takes proto-feminist Katherine to awaken the girls’ intellectual potential. I much prefer School of Rock for this sort of thing.

Director Mike Newell and screenwriters Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal should have uncorseted their own imaginations. The girls on display are all tightly stereotyped. There’s snooty Betty (Kirsten Dunst), whose gorgon mother is on the board of trustees and who values marriage above all else; Joan (Julia Stiles), the valedictorian who can’t decide between her boyfriend and Yale Law School; Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who can be terrific in anything), the free spirit who sleeps around; and Connie (Ginnifer Goodwin), the scholarship student who doesn’t think she’s good enough for the Harvard guy. To top it all off, there’s also wallflower Nancy (Marcia Gay Harden, surprisingly touching), who teaches speech, elocution, and poise and is just mad about chintz.

It’s not much fun watching pigeons struggling inside their pigeonholes. Mona Lisa Smile is a thesis movie. It’s saying that women in the early fifties suffered the brunt of the era’s crushing conformity. But that sameness is vastly oversold here (as it is in most popular accounts). And surely at that time—especially at a place like Wellesley—there were many more free-thinking women than this film allows for. The movie makes it seem as if Katherine had arrived from another galaxy to spread the good word. The Wellesley potentates are depicted as equally backward; they denounce Katherine’s progressive, be-all-that-you-can-be teaching methods and send her packing. Everything about this movie seems off-key, starting with its title. Mona Lisa is likened to Katherine, but was there ever an actress with a less enigmatic smile than Julia Roberts?

As real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, Charlize Theron, aided by the extraordinary makeup artist Toni G, is almost unrecognizable compared with her usual honey-dipped glam persona. With the addition of about 30 pounds, prosthetic dentures, and skin made to look freckled and sun-damaged, Theron breaks through with a ferocious performance—a real career-changer. Writer-director Patty Jenkins limits its scope, however, by presenting Wuornos, a prostitute who began murdering her johns in 1989 after a sickeningly abusive encounter, as a poster girl for victimhood. As her wide-eyed, tagalong lover, Christina Ricci is naïveté personified… . Girl With a Pearl Earring, adapted from the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier, stars Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the maidservant who poses for him. Pretty much the whole movie is a series of poses, static and uninvolving, except for cinematographer Eduardo Serra’s lighting, which makes everything look convincingly Vermeer-ish. I’d like to see what he could do with Rembrandt.