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Conventional Suspense Overcomes Chilling Atmosphere in Smilla's Sense of Snow
movie review by Gary Johnson

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]
Never has a movie captured the feeling of extreme cold like Smilla's Sense of Snow. During the opening credits, filmed in Greenland, the camera swoops over ice floes and glaciers, around icebergs and over pack ice, and the steel-blue gray atmosphere bites into you and imparts a powerful and chilling sense of the land's beautiful and deadly dangerous nature.

Movie poster for Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Twentieth Century Fox)

These scenes also provide us with a first-person point-of-view introduction to the world of the Greenlandic Inuit--the people who inhabit this otherworldly region of seemingly endless plains of ice--and show us the huge open spaces that the Inuit call home. This environment plays an important role in the movie even when the story shifts several thousand miles away to Copenhagen, for the story's main character is half Greenlandic Inuit. The world of Greenland continues to shape her actions.

Born in Greenland but brought to Copenhagen at the age of six by her American father, Smilla Jaspersen has never fit in. To her, Copenhagen is a claustrophobic world of walls and noise--a world totally foreign to her, a world she can never feel comfortable in--so she shields herself with biting sarcasm, never letting anyone get close to her. She devotes herself only to mathematics and science, preferring the company of a microscope over the warm touch of a fellow human. "The only thing that makes me truly happy is mathematics," she says.

Julia Ormond in
Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Twentieth Century Fox)

In the hands of actress Julia Ormond, Smilla becomes one of the most intriguing female characters to appear on a movie screen in recent memory. With her firm jaw and angular features, Ormond conveys a rigidity, an inflexibility, that makes Smilla always an outsider. Smilla's only contact has been with a small boy, a fellow Greenlandic Inuit now living with his mother in Copenhagen. While the mother remains habitually drunk, Smilla cares for the boy and forms a deep attachment to him. "It's important to know where you're from," she tells him. "It tells you who you are."

However, one day the boy falls from the roof of their apartment building and dies. Smilla refuses to believe the boy could have fallen by himself and insists someone else is responsible, so she begins her own investigation into the boy's death. "I don't care about your forensic evidence," she tells a government official. "I knew him. That's my evidence."

Smilla soon finds out that several government officials don't want her nosing around. And ultimately her quest for the truth puts her own life in jeopardy. Along the way, her investigation turns up enough sci-fi intrigue and government conspiracy to make FBI Agent Fox Mulder of The X-Files jealous.

Gabriel Byrne in
Smilla's Sense of Snow.

(©1997 Twentieth Century Fox)

Smilla's Sense of Snow works best when it focuses on the character of Smilla. She is a truly intriguing and complex creation, but the movie fares less well as the story turns more to action-suspense. Smilla becomes much too resourceful for her own good. She becomes an expert pickpocket to grab an attorney's wallet and she pushes over bookshelves to ward off a pursuer and whacks him in the head with a flashlight. She takes evidence to an expert for analysis, and in cliched fashion, the expert gets killed. We even get scenes with Smilla using a dumb waiter to do a little undercover work. The further we get into the movie, the more routine and predictable it becomes. And that's a shame because the early scenes are intriguing and mysterious, creating a quiet mood of desperation and alienation. But as the movie develops, the plot contrivances become sillier and noisier. Eventually the contrivances overwhelm the movie.

Gabriel Byrne is also on hand as Smilla's neighbor, but anyone familiar with the plot patterns for mystery-suspense movies can easily guess what he's up to. Richard Harris plays the tycoon owner of a mining company. The movie leads us toward the inevitable confrontation between Harris and Ormond, but the scene is a big let down. All we get is Harris reciting some plot points that the movie has already revealed. Vanessa Redgrave gets little more than a cameo role as a former employee of Harris's mining company who helps point Smilla in the right direction. Redgrave plays an eccentric character, but like the other characters in the movie, the nice eccentric touches are still in the service of a tediously conventional yarn.

Director Bille August (Pele the Conqueror) has fashioned a wonderfully atmospheric movie with a marvelously complicated central character from fellow Dane Peter Hoeg's best-selling novel, but ultimately the atmosphere and characterizations are in the service of an overly-plotted story that stumbles toward a conclusion. As the movie lurches back to the glaciers of Greenland, the terrifying steel-blue atmosphere makes way for some half-baked sci-fi revelations. Instead of focusing on Smilla and her emotions as she returns to her homeland, the movie becomes a simple action movie. This is the first time Smilla has been back to Greenland in twenty years. How does it affect her? What does she feel as she hikes over the glaciers? Smilla's Sense of Snow becomes mute on these issues and reveals itself to be little more than an ordinary, superficial thriller done-up in art house trappings.

A Fox Searchlight Pictures Presentation


Smilla JaspersonJulia Ormond
The MechanicGabriel Byrne
TorkRichard Harris
Elsa LubingVanessa Redgrave
Moritz JohnsonRobert Loggia
LagermannJim Broadbent
Birgo LanderPeter Capaldi
BenjaEmma Croft
Professor LoyenTom Wilkinson
RavnBob Peck
Captain Sigmund LukasMario Adorf
Nils JakkelsonJurgen Vogel
Directed byBille August
Produced byBernd Eichinger
Martin Moszkowicz
Screenplay byAnn Biderman
Based upon the novel byPeter Hoeg, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Director of PhotographyJorgen Persson
Production DesignerAnna Asp
MusicHans Zimmer
Harry Gregson Williams
Costume DesignerBarbara Baum
EditorJanus Billeskov Jansen
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