Smilla's Sense of Snow
Screenplay : Ann Biderman (based on the novel by Peter Hoeg)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Julia Ormond (Smilla Jaspersen), Gabriel Byrne (The Mechanic), Richard Harris (Tork Hviid), Vanessa Redgrave (Elsa Lubing), Robert Loggia (Moritz Jaspersen), Jim Broadbent (Lagermann), Mario Adorf (Sigmund Lukas), Bob Peck (Ravn), Tom Wilkinson (Dr. Loyen)
"Smilla's Sense of Snow" is just over two hours long, and for the first hour and a half it is a frustrating, yet intriguing piece of cinema. It develops characters that are interesting, if not always appealing, and spins a fascinating murder-mystery around the death of a six-year-old boy.
And then, just when we think we may be viewing a strange masterpiece, it completely falls apart in the last half-hour. The solution to the mystery is not only appalling in its sheer silliness, but insulting in the fact that it deflates the earlier development of the story, which had been finely tuned and absorbing. It turns out that the film's heroine solves the majority of the mystery by luckily stumbling upon a pair of videotapes that conveniently explain exactly what she needs to know, and nothing more. It's like a variation on the oft-played scene where the killer explains all his motives to the hero before dying, except this time the killer did it all in front of a camcorder.
The film's heroine (or should I say, anti-heroine?) is Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond), a mathematician just as cold and icy as the title would suggest. She is the daughter of an American father (Robert Loggia) and a native Greenlander mother. After her mother died when she was a girl, Smilla's father uprooted her from her native homeland and moved her to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Apparently, tearing her from her roots has deeply wounded her, because Smilla is incapable of feeling secure and developing relationships with other people. Instead, she buries herself in study and research, learning everything there is to know about the intricacies of ice and snow.
The only person she does form a bond with is six-year-old Isaiah (Clipper Miano), also a native of Greenland, who lives in her apartment building. His mother is a sympathetic drunk who sometimes lacks in her motherly duties, so it is often up to Smilla to take care of him. One day, she returns home to find that Isaiah was playing on the roof of the building and fell to his death. However, Smilla knows that Isaiah was afraid of heights, and when she goes to the roof and observes his footprints in the snow, she immediately realizes that something is amiss. She becomes convinced that Isaiah was murdered, and because she had such a strong bond with him, she is determined to solve the mystery.
As the movie progresses, she becomes involved with a man in her apartment building (Gabriel Byrne) who discovered Isaiah's body. Known only as The Mechanic, Byrne's character professes to have loved the child as well, and he wants to help Smilla find out who was behind his murder. Not being much of a people-person, Smilla at first refuses his help, but eventually he gets through to her. The only problem is that Byrne's character is not entirely trustworthy, and he has a sneaky way of showing at unexpected times, and then explaining it away by saying he was simply following her.
As all good mysteries do, the one in "Smilla's Sense of Snow" gets denser and more complex as Smilla probes deeper and deeper. She finds out that there were strange aspects to Isaiah's autopsy. She learns that Isaiah's father died under mysterious circumstances while working for a mining company owned by Tork Hviid (Richard Harris), and that Isaiah was there when his father died. There are a number of other secrets she uncovers, which I won't reveal here, but I will say that they border on cheap science fiction. Although most of the film is confined to Copenhagen, the last third takes place on a ship heading to Greenland, with Smilla smuggled on-board so she can find out the last bits of the mystery. Little does she know that all she needs is a VCR . . .
Julia Ormond is appropriately sallow and cold in the title role. Her character is interesting, but it's sometimes hard to empathize with her because she can be so cruel to others. Gabriel Byrne doesn't do much with his role, and there's little reason for us to believe that his character and Smilla would ever fall for each other. In small supporting roles, fine actors like Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave are mostly wasted, although Redgrave makes as much as she can with her small bit of screentime as a religious ex-secretary who gives Smilla some much needed secrets.
The director, Danish-born Bille August, was as lauded for "Pelle the Conqueror" (1988), the film that first got him notice in America, as he was ridiculed for "The House of the Spirits" (1994), his first English-language film. All of his previous films have been ambitious projects, and "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is no exception. August shows a fine talent for creating mood and atmosphere, but the material he's dealing with is destined for self-destruction. No matter how good he is, he cannot overcome the sloppy writing and inane climax. He and veteran cinematographer Jörgen Persson lather the film up with beautiful photography and an air of artistry, hoping that when the movie's over we'll be tricked into thinking we've witnessed something artistic.
It seems to me that, either accidentally or with full intention, everyone involved with this film has attempted to obscure what it's really about. From the wordy and obtuse-sounding title, to the poster designs and trailers used in the marketing, "Smilla's Sense of Snow" wants to be an art-house film rather than a conventional murder-mystery. Unfortunately, it is a conventional murder-mystery, and any number of beautiful shots of the frozen Arctic won't change that. In their quest to make "Smilla's Sense of Snow" more than it actually is, the creators overlooked the fact that a good murder-mystery has to take us somewhere that is both unexpected and believable if it's going to work. Almost all of the elements of "Smilla's Sense of Snow" are certainly unexpected, but believeablity is an entirely different matter.
©1998 James Kendrick