Robert Redford's adaptation of "The Horse Whisperer" is an exercise in the virtues of patience.

In the film, Redford's character is an incredibly patient Montana cowpoke. And he spends much of his time onscreen trying to help a city woman and her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas and young Scarlett Johansson) - and their horse - understand the importance of patience in the healing process.And Redford the filmmaker/actor probably needed a great deal of patience to get this project off the ground. Not because Hollywood doesn't recognize a best-seller when it sees one, but because of the way Redford makes movies.

These days, you might expect a film like this to be shot on a studio backlot, with computer-generated clouds and trees, a computer-animated horse (think of the elephant in "George of the Jungle"), accompanied by quick-cut editing and classic Western songs covered by various hip-hop groups.

With Tom Cruise and Kate Winslet in the starring roles.

But none of that is Robert Redford.

To get a picture of "The Horse Whisperer," think "Ordinary People" meets the "Electric Horseman." A dysfunctional suburban family receives lessons in life - and in the soothing natural beauty of the environment and God's creatures (horses in particular) - from a laconic, straight-shooting cowpuncher.

Movies may have changed in the 18 years since Redford earned his Oscar for directing "Ordinary People," but he hasn't changed a bit. Except that he's gotten better; he's a much more self-assured filmmaker.

At nearly three hours, "The Horse Whisperer" takes its time. The film is loaded with scenes where nothing much happens. Or so it seems.

This is storytelling at its most subtle, and, consequently, its most powerful. Redford knows that cinema is a literal medium and that an awful lot can be said by saying nothing when the images are 40 feet high.

So he takes us back to a decidedly old-fashioned mode of moviemaking - when story and character were key.

All of which is quite deceptive in its seeming simplicity. There is great depth here, coupled with profound emotion. Yet, none of it is in the least bit heavy-handed.

In fact, it's fair to say that what isn't in the movie is most surprising.

There isn't any sex.

Of all the choices Redford made for "The Horse Whisperer," this may be the most radical. Especially since one of the plot lines flirts with an adulterous romance.

When Redford and Thomas' characters find themselves drawn to each other, instead of immediately jumping in the sack, they take the high road.

They don't look around for an empty cabin. They don't go for a nude moonlight swim. They don't leap off their horses and search for high grass.

They kiss, and they talk about it, and they part.

They're tempted, mind you. But they don't succumb.

Instead, they resist. They exercise restraint. They employ self-control. (Hollywood moviemakers who wonder what those words mean can look them up in the dictionary.)

In fact, since there's also very little swearing in "The Horse Whisperer," and the only violence is a deadly accident in the opening sequence (although it is admittedly intense), I'm having trouble figuring out why the film is rated PG-13.

Ordinarily, even the best movies give me reason to complain. And I suppose I could say something about how the golden sunlight shimmers on Redford's golden hair in a couple of scenes (which were apparently underwritten by Clairol).

But instead, let me heartily second Jeff Vice's four-star review on this page. And not just because the movie is so good. But more because it's a real movie.

There was a time when movies about people, human nature and star-crossed romance were the rule, not the exception. And that's also true of the scenic beauty of the real world - which can still be photographed in all its jaw-dropping magnificence without enhancement by modern technology.

Actually, it's nice just to see a movie that doesn't seem to be influenced more by MTV than Orson Welles.

And with that in mind, younger moviegoers may feel there is a certain amount of patience needed by the audience to sit through this film.

But I'm convinced an older audience is out there, patiently waiting for a movie to be made for them.

And their patience has paid off. "The Horse Whisperer" is it.

Let's just hope it's a big hit.

If it is, they'll make more.