SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Billie August
Stars: Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Loggia, Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Bob Peck, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Emma Croft, Tom Wilkinson, Mario Adorf, Jurgen Vogel
Running Time: 121 minutes.

Fans of Danish author Peter Hoeg’s acclaimed novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow may be a little disappointed by this workmanlike screen adaptation, which has drastically changed the thrust of the book. Screenwriter Ann Biderman (Copycat, Primal Fear, etc) has transformed Hoeg’s colorful novel into a more conventional thriller in the Alistair MacLean mould. Although Biderman has made some fundamental changes to the book, she still manages to retain its unsettling atmosphere.

The most obvious changes concern the heroine, Smilla Jasperson (Julia Ormond, who is nothing like the character described in the novel), a reclusive geologist who believes that the death of a six year old boy, who fell from the roof of her apartment block, is not an accident. Although the official investigation suggests otherwise, Smilla is convinced that the boy has been murdered. Her conclusion is based both on her friendship with the boy and her ability to read footprints. Smilla is a fairly cold and aloof person, more comfortable with the impersonal nature of science and numbers rather than the real world. She enlists the help of her father (superbly played by Robert Loggia), a brilliant doctor, to help her understand some vital medical clues. She is also unsure of how far she can trust her neighbor (Gabriel Byrne), an enigmatic character whose motives for becoming involved remain ambivalent. Smilla’s relentless probing uncovers a sinister web of deception and ruthless men prepared to commit murder to protect their secrets. This eventually brings her into conflict with Thor (Richard Harris), a renowned scientist embarking on yet another mysterious expedition into Greenland.

Danish director Billie August (House Of The Spirits, etc) maintains a rather pedestrian pace throughout, although he manages to imbue the material with a steadily increasing atmosphere of betrayal and violence. Events are never quite clear until the end, and even then some of the plot exposition is murky and unclear.

Breaking away from her lightweight image, Ormond projects a rare strength and resourcefulness as the resilient and determined Smilla, capturing her sense of displacement, her complex emotions and her motives. August has assembled a strong cast to flesh out the peripheral characters. Vanessa Redgrave makes the most of her small role as a former secretary, who is wracked by guilt, and who reluctantly points Smilla in the right direction. Jim Broadbent captures the sense of discomfort experienced by the coroner, who feels that his integrity has been compromised, while Bob Peck brings an understated menace to his role as a policeman with dubious loyalties.

Jorgen Persson’s cinematography beautifully captures the vast, snow covered wilderness of the locations in Denmark, Sweden and Greenland (the first time in decades that the country has been used as the setting for a major feature film), and he brings a palpable sense of chill to the film’s surface.

★★☆

 

 

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