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SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW(director: Bille August; screenwriters: Ann Biderman /from the novel by Peter Hoeg; cinematographer: Jorgen Persson; editor: Janius Billeskov; cast: Julia Ormond (Smilla Jaspersen), Gabriel Byrne (the Mechanic), Richard Harris (Tork), Robert Loggia (Moritz Johnson), Vanessa Redgrave (Elsa Lubing), Jim Broadbent (Lagermann), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Loyen), Clipper Miano (Isaiah), Emma Croft (Benja), Bob Peck (Ravn); Runtime: 121; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 1997)
“If you can be satisfied with just the film’s atmosphere, then you might feel adequately nourished.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There was a worm in the core of this turgid thriller that spoiled its taste. The film never seemed as good as it looked. The moody production of Smilla’s Sense of Snow is adapted from Peter Hoeg’s best-seller. This is a film with so much unrealized potential about the icy heroine, the tough-minded half-American and half-Greenland Inuit, Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond). She seemingly stepped into a hole in the ice before the film’s finale and was ludicrously transformed from a captivating noir personality to a typical Hollywood action heroine.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow presents a mysterious story relying on tense local atmosphere, enigmatic characters and twists in the plot, to spin its dark tale of a heroine looking to find her roots again. The Danish director, Bille August, who tries to be faithful to his fellow countryman’s source material, presents a glossy and sleek looking film that inherits all the virtues and vices of the book; and, it comes up short in the end because it cannot overcome how utterly ludicrous the story becomes.

The film opens as a meteorite, in the Greenland of 1859, hits the ice and crushes everyone in the vicinity including an Inuit fisherman. There’s a spectacular light show in the crushed ice that reminded me of the pyrotechnics one would see at a July 4th celebration. The film then switches to modern Coperhagen and the story involves the nefarious dealings of the Greenland Mining Company. They do secret research over the parasitic worms coming to life from the fallen meteor, and that becomes the crux of the mystery story. But the personal story is about Smilla living as an Inuit in a large modern city and trying to find out who she really is.

Smilla is a troubled young lady, never fitting into Copenhagen, Denmark, where her father, an American doctor named Moritz (Loggia), brought her after her mother was killed in a kayak accident when she was six. She has remained detached from others in this claustrophobic urbane setting ever since leaving the spaciousness of Greenland, except she is drawn to a six year old deaf Inuit boy named Isaiah (Clipper Miano) who lives in the same apartment building with his alcoholic mother.

The mystery begins with Isaiah’s puzzling death, which happens in the film’s beginning scene. The boy falls off the rooftop of his apartment building and the only tracks on the snowy roof are his, as he heads straight for the ledge. But Smilla questions the police when she finds out that his death is ruled accidental, as she notes the boy had a phobia about heights and would never go to the roof to play alone. She also relies on her intuitions, as all her instincts tell her that Isaiah was murdered. As she investigates the boy’s death, writing a letter to the district attorney to re-open the investigation and questions the medical doctor who did the autopsy. She then becomes convinced she is right after meeting with the mining company’s secretary (Vanessa Redgrave), where she learns from her of a secret company archive in the basement. She even gets the unsolicited support of her nosy neighbor, who makes friends with her and even becomes her lover. He is called the Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), someone whom she never quite trusts or knows what he does for a living; but, she finds his knowledge of a conspiracy is useful. This puts her in danger and will eventually take her back to her Greenland roots.

Smilla’s investigation uncovers that the neglected boy’s father died in a mining explosion in Greenland, which resulted in the boy’s recent arrival to Denmark where he is being examined by the mining company’s head doctor, Professor Loyen (Tom Wilkinson), once every month — which strikes her as strange.

What should strike the audience as even stranger, is how the film ends up in the same ice caves where the film opened up its story in the 19th century. The last 30 minutes of this, until now, seemingly plausible story, becomes unbelievable as Smilla uses trickery to get herself on board the Russian ship Kronos to Greenland. Once aboard, she further investigates the mystery of the boy’s death by climbing inside a dumbwaiter taking her to where the mystery passengers on ship reside. Here she finds industrialist Andreas Tørk (Richard Harris), who is like one one of those cartoonish James Bond movie villains lusting for power, greed, and fame. He is confronted by our heroine who seeks only justice.

The film at this late juncture resembles a formulaic Hollywood film, thereby putting a damper on the terrific mood it just set. It was sort of like going to dinner and getting a whiff of some appetizing aromas, but then discovering the meal was not edible. If you can be satisfied with just the atmosphere, then you might feel adequately nourished. I wasn’t. I was just swept away by the moody setting, the fine stoic performance by Ormond, and the potential for intrigue — which, unfortunately, never materialized.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”