Smilla's Sense of Snow

on February 28, 1997 by Kim Williamson
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   "The way you have a sense of God, I have a sense of snow," says Smilla Jaspersen ("Sabrina's" Julia Ormond) to a devout recluse (Vanessa Redgrave) in one of the most thematically effective scenes in "Smilla's Sense of Snow." Jaspersen, who since her birth in Greenland to a native mother and an American father has always had an uncanny ability to navigate arctic landscapes, is on the hunt for clues to the death of a six-year-old Inuit (Clipper Miano); she doesn't believe the suspiciously placid police explanation. ("He was playing on the roof. He fell.") Her doubts grow as she presses the case, and--in too easy fashion--learns significant facts: A famed arctic-medicine scientist ("Priest's" Tom Wilkinson) insisted on performing the autopsy himself; a pathologist ("Bullets Over Broadway's" Jim Broadbent) removed from the case found a strange mark on the boy; the recluse, a former employee of Greenland Mining, a company for whom the boy's father had worked until his own death in a mining accident, has a key to incriminating expedition records; Jaspersen's American father ("Lost Highway's" Robert Loggia), a noted physician, on examining the dead father's X-rays discovers indications of a prehistoric parasite; and the Greenland Mining head ("Cry, the Beloved Country's" Richard Harris) seems interested purely in payoff--both for the deaths and for his own pocket. As she continues probing, a sympathetic but mysterious neighbor (Gabriel Byrne, working here in "Point of No Return" mode) in her Copenhagen apartment complex continually comes to her aid, even as she ventures beyond Copenhagen and into the distant ice floes.
   The elements of "Smilla's Sense of Snow," a German/Danish/Swedish co-production led by Constantin Film, are themselves an amalgam: Mainstream dashes of "Jurassic Park," "Outbreak" and James Bond make an uneasy mix with fine mathematical philosophizing, iceberg-ponderous plotting and blue-ice cinematography more suitable to the art house. In adapting Danish novelist Peter Hoeg's book (published stateside as "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow"), Danish director Bille August ("Jerusalem") and American screenwriter Ann Biderman ("Primal Fear") have triumphed in making a frigidly beautiful film full of sinister intrigue and psychological conflict but have failed to make how that intrigue plays out plausible or to make that conflict emotionally important to the audience.
   Even in casual recline on a couch, Ormond brings a potent presence to the screen, and her role here (as did last year's "Captives") as a troubled but uncompromising woman suits her well. (Though her Smilla will hardly win affection.) Although the central players are absorbing, in part because their characters are types rarely seen in studio films, the simplest part of characterization--who's who--isn't clearly dealt with. (For example, the film opens with an Inuit being killed, and even when the film is halfway through moviegoers can be forgiven if they confuse him with the dead boy's father.) A more difficult task--making who's who and what they do believable--is another failing; e.g., a happy-go-lucky casino owner (Peter Capaldi) proves skilled at dangerous subterfuge, engineering Jaspersen's passage on a Greenland Mining vessel on a secret mission. (Itself a scenario verging on the preposterous.) But the fundamental problem is that the film in the end denotes nothing; motifs replace meaning. Were it not for the skilled and dramatic hand of August, who moves his movies as slowly as an icebreaker sloughing through the thickest ice, the impact of "Smilla's Sense of Snow" would simply melt away. Starring Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia and Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Bille August. Written by Ann Biderman. Produced by Bernd Eichinger and Martin Moszkowicz. A Fox Searchlight release. Drama. Rated R for language, some violence and a sex scene. Running time: 127 min.
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