Smilla's Sense of Snow
Directed by Bille August. Starring Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Mario Adorf. (1997, R)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 21, 1997
Based on the world-wide bestseller Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Danish author Peter Hoeg, the film Smilla's Sense of Snow is a confounding affair. Part love story, part sci-fi thriller, and part Danish/Greenlandic history lesson, August's film simply has too much to work with. As Groucho Marx would say, it's not that the film is incoherent, it's just that it doesn't make much sense. As the half-Inuit/half-American heroine Smilla Jaspersen, who is currently living in Copenhagen, Ormond struggles to bring order to this complex character and succeeds, while everything else falls apart around her. It's enough to make you cry, but in all the wrong ways. As a result of her multi-layered ethnicity, Smilla is a woman who has barricaded herself behind walls of emotional defenses. Her only real friend is a young Inuit boy who lives in her apartment building. When the boy is found dead on the snow-covered walkway out front, investigators conclude that he simply fell off the roof while playing. Smilla knows better -- the boy had a phobia of heights -- and suspects foul play. Her investigation into the boy's death, and also that of his father some time before, lead her into a mysterious shadowland of conspiracies and deceit, betrayal and danger, eventually taking her all the way back to her native Greenland. There is, of course, much more to it than that, but suffice to say Gabriel Byrne is not what he seems (has he ever been?). August, who won an Academy Award for Pelle the Conqueror in 1988, here grapples fruitlessly with overwhelming material. There's a distinct impression that important parts of the book -- and also the film -- have been siphoned out, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, “Did I miss something here?” Most probably, yes. That aside, the one faultless aspect of August's film lies in its gorgeous, breathtaking cinematography. Much of Smilla's Sense of Snow was shot on location in Greenland, and Jorgen Persson's camerawork is spectacular, illuminating the cobalt blue of the frozen wastes with an almost regal air. As a travelogue, August's film works wonders; as a narrative, it's just not all there.