National Catholic Register


Freedom From the Bondage of Spiritual Isolation

BY Stephen Hopkins

April 13-19,1997 Issue | Posted 4/13/97 at 1:00 PM


THE MOTION PICTURE adaptation of Peter Hoeg's (Borderliners) best selling novel Smilla's Sense of Snow fashions itself as a dark, psychological thriller. Though the story starts out full of intrigue and atmosphere, by the final reel, Smilla's sense takes us out on some pretty thin ice.

This is no fault of Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall and First Night). She has shed the cheery ingenue persona from her recent Sabrina remake. Her brooding performance as Smilla is compelling. She is at moments aggressively hostile, yet she always remains sympathetic and vulnerable.

Smilla is more comfortable with the ice and snow of her Greenlandic childhood then with her present society in Copenhagen. She lives in a kind of emotional exile that is shattered by the apparently accidental death of the one person she has allowed into her life—a six-year-old Inuit boy who lived in the apartment below.

She senses the child's fall from the snowy roof was no accident. The tracks lead straight to the roof's edge. Smilla knows that “no child in the world plays like that.” She also knows that the boy had a fear of heights. Something stinks in Denmark!

The plot thickens as she discovers that the boy's death is somehow connected to his father's death and an explosion at the powerful mining company where he had been employed. Like a Hitchcockian paranoiac heroine, Smilla is lead on an adventure back to her Greenlandic homeland to discover the truth.

It's a great set-up and the first half of the film is quite engaging. Unfortunately, Ann Biderman's (Primal Fear) screenplay adaptation fails to provide a pay-off as sophisticated as her set-up. Half way through the film the essence of the boy's mysterious death becomes apparent (or as apparent as it needs to be) and more damaging, Smilla's icy psyche has played itself out.

Like a Hitchcockian paranoiac heroine, Smilla is lead on an adventure back to her Greenlandic homeland to discover the truth.

By the time Smilla beds her stuttering suitor and questionable ally, Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects and Little Woman) viewers might start to question—if not her judgment or morals—her credibility. For whom does this Byrne character really work? Is this the way a smart, angry woman with a fear of intimacy acts? While the relationship is apparently meant to represent her liberation from isolation, it's more like Biderman is trying to thaw her leading woman's heart while adding a little more suspense and romance to the mix.

For the rest of the film, Smilla's psychological development is ignored and the film is reduced to stock action adventure material. That wouldn't be so bad if Smilla's research techniques weren't so incredulous. Whether she is breaking into a basement archive or a video library, the first thing she pulls off the shelf is always her next clue. She suffers from claustrophobia, but apparently forgets this when she needs to stow away in a dumb waiter. She travels six miles on the frozen Antarctic and just happens upon the bad guy's ice-cave hide out.

Still, so much of the film is first rate. Director BilIe August (Pelle the Conqueror) offers an icy visual metaphor to Smilla's sense of isolation. Credit here also goes to cinematographer, Jorgen Persson (My Life as a Dog and House of Spirits) who captures the terrible beauty of Greenland's expansive wasteland. The most memorable is the opening sequence when a falling meteor produces a tidal wave beneath a sheet of ice.

There is a strong supporting cast. Vanessa Redgrave (Camelot, Julia and Mission Impossible) plays a somewhat bizarre “Bride of Jesus” who, as a former employee of the mining company, carries their dirty secrets. Richard Harris (Camelot and The Field) plays Tork, the ruthless scientist who heads the company.

While Smilla's Sense of Snow starts off buoyantly as a first class thriller, it ultimately melts down to action adventure slush. The film's R-rating should be seen as “soft” and is for denoting brief sensuality, violence and some profanity.

Stephen Hopkins is based in New York.