Smilla's Sense of Snow

BookSexCopenhagen (Denmark)Bille AugustJulia OrmondGreenlandMovies

Friday February 28, 1997

     When Peter Hoeg's "Smilla's Sense of Snow" was published in Denmark in 1992, no one anticipated the kind of international sales and celebrity this singular book would have. Yet, in an irony its author might appreciate, that level of success ensured that the inevitable film version wouldn't be just as memorable.
     Because once Hoeg's literate, philosophical thriller started selling all those copies in dozens of languages, it was only a matter of time until it became, if not an actual Hollywood feature, then one of those bland and stodgy international co-productions that homogenizes and standardizes everything it encounters.
     So though "Smilla's" Danish director is Bille August, this stolid film has more in common with his multicultural version of Isabelle Allende's "House of the Spirits" (which was produced, as is "Smilla's," by German Bernd Eichinger) than his Oscar- and Palme d'Or-winning Danish-language "Pelle the Conqueror."
     Actually, a comparison with the deadly "Spirits" is unfair, because "Smilla's" has some things going for it, including the original book's involving plot and a respectable performance by Julia Ormond as the accidental detective who gives the book its title.
     But though it's a handsomely mounted, professional piece of work, "Smilla's" has too many components, from its use of English to its cross-cultural cast, that are useful for international sales but make this film more routine than it ought to be. And Ormond, who works hard and has to carry the entire picture, has what even director August acknowledges as an almost impossible task.
     "The structure of the novel is exceptionally sophisticated," he admits in a making-of-the-movie book published by the Noonday Press. "Converting that into something as concrete as film is extremely difficult. . . . Smilla is highly intelligent and very philosophical and has a most intriguing outlook on life, but there is no way that this can be transferred directly onto film."
     Just so.
     Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, a half-Inuit scientist who lives in Copenhagen, is introduced walking home on a snowy December evening. An ambulance with its siren on passes her, and she is taken by a premonition that turns out to be true: Someone she knows has died.
     It turns out to be Isaiah, a 6-year-old boy who lies motionless in the snow in front of her apartment building. The police tell her Isaiah was playing on the roof and accidentally fell to his death, but, for several interconnected reasons, Smilla is suspicious.
     One is that she knows the boy, knows that his fear of heights made fun and games up there unlikely. Another is that, as the daughter of a Greenland woman who was a celebrated hunter, Smilla inherited a sixth sense about snow, and what she sees of Isaiah's footprints on the roof indicate that he was not frolicking but fleeing in terror.
     The final reason is Smilla's own temperament. Brought to Copenhagen at age 6 by her American father (Robert Loggia), Smilla's feeling of displacement has turned her into the angriest woman on film, abrupt, abrasive and in a constant mistrustful rage against the world. Smilla's so sullen, we see in flashbacks, it took an act of will for Isaiah, a fellow Greenlander, to get close to her. Not the kind of person, in short, likely to accept the official explanation of anything.
     Though Ormond comes off more petulant than the "rough all over" woman she's supposed to be, she does look appropriately gaunt and severe and, fortunately, she is good at being determined.
     Because, helped by a neighbor known as the Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), what Smilla does is follow one clue after another about Isaiah's fate all across Copenhagen and beyond. Without the book's involving language, this becomes fairly routine, though enlivened by supporting performances by Richard Harris as a mining tycoon and Vanessa Redgrave as one of his former employees who now considers herself a bride of Jesus.
     Though it is written by American Ann Biderman ("Copycat," "Primal Fear"), there is an awkwardness to the use of language here that makes scenes sound like the product of a multinational commission. Entire segments of the film, like Smilla's bitter relationship with her father's new girlfriend Benja (Emma Croft), come off as completely flat.
     With interiors shot on studio stages, "Smilla's" isn't particularly Scandinavian in its look, with one exception: The credits sequence, filmed on the glaciers and ice fields of Greenland, creates a sense of mystery and majesty the rest of the film lacks. Though enlivened by occasional touches, "Smilla's" is like the food at Taco Bell: exotic only to someone who hasn't experienced the real thing.

Smilla's Sense of Snow, 1997. R, for language, some violence and a sex scene. Fox Searchlight Pictures presents a Bernd Eichinger production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Bille August. Producers Bernd Eichinger, Martin Moszkowicz. Screenplay Ann Biderman, based on the novel by Peter Hoeg. Cinematographer Jorgen Persson. Editor Janus Billeskov Jansen. Costumes Barbara Baum. Music Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson Williams. Production design Anna Asp. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes. Julia Ormond as Smilla. Gabriel Byrne as the Mechanic. Richard Harris as Tork. Robert Loggia as Moritz Johnson. Vanessa Redgrave as Elsa Lubing.

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