Smilla's Sense of Snow

Robin Dougherty reviews the movie "Smilla's Sense of Snow"

Published April 14, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

a meteor smashes into Greenland in 1859. Then, 100 years later, a small boy plunges to his death from a Copenhagen rooftop. Throw in the discovery of some prehistoric worm-shaped parasites and you've got a great set-up for a sci-fi thriller. If you've read Peter Hoeg's 1993 bestseller "Smilla's Sense of Snow," you already know how these events are connected. But, even if you're not in the know, by the time you reach the end of Bille August's shallow film adaptation, you may no longer care.

That's no small disappointment when what's at stake -- according to the mad-scientist scenario at the heart of this tale -- is nothing less than the future of the world. Instead, the movie feels like a treatment for a great cinematic film rather than a film itself -- something Hitchcock might have worked with if he wanted to make a thriller at the top of the world. It's a sequence of plodding but beautifully shot set pieces that take advantage of Denmark's perpetual winter twilight and its monstrous ice floes, but don't illustrate anything. The screenplay is by Ann Biderman ("Primal Fear").

The story is about how Smilla (Julia Ormond), bitterly exiled from Greenland as a child and now living as an unemployed scientist in Copenhagen, gets involved in investigating the death of Isaiah, her 6-year-old neighbor who fell off the roof. Smilla's Inuit upbringing is what gives her a so-called sense of snow. The idea is that she's able to read -- and care about -- the cold, white crystals the way other scientists read graphs or fingerprints. Innately suspicious, Smilla notices that the tracks Isaiah left on the snowy building indicate he might have been pushed.

With help from a laconic downstairs neighbor known only as "the mechanic" (Gabriel Byrne) and from a former employee (Vanessa Redgrave, in a throwaway part) at the mine that employed Isaiah's father, Smilla pieces together a sinister cover-up. She also attracts the government's attention, and in no time at all, she's on the run. She escapes from a burning boat, reluctantly falls in love with the mechanic and ultimately books a clandestine passage on a ship headed for an unknown polar destination.

Never mind that there's not one snowflake of suspense in all this. Despite a breathtaking scene in which the meteor's crash into Earth turns the ice fields into a carnivorous tidal wave of snow, August's direction is mind-bogglingly dull. Without Hoeg's exploration of Smilla's mind -- in the book, she's one of pop-culture's best-wrought loners -- it's nearly impossible to figure out her motivation. The emotional engine of the story revolves around Smilla's letting go of her misanthropy and admitting her need for attachment. But without any way for us to sense this, the movie makes no sense.

Why is this woman so angry? Better yet, why is she wearing lipstick?

It doesn't help that Julia Ormond -- perhaps the most un-Smilla-like actress walking the planet -- is cast in the starring role. She gives a competent performance, but she looks like Nancy Drew's pert-nosed cousin who somehow got trapped while sleuthing inside a snow globe, not the prickly, androgynous warrior Smilla is meant to be. During the film's many slow moments, you find yourself wondering who should have been cast. Among the possibilities: a younger Vanessa Redgrave, Sigourney Weaver, someone whose physicality would actually be threatening. (In Hollywood? What was I thinking!)

Hoeg's psychological/sci-fi mystery begs to be turned into a high-budget B-movie -- something that, like the book, stirs up our collective memory of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and such Arctic-set sci-fi classics as "The Thing." Instead, we get Ormond, whose response to Byrne's question about her having a rough, salty tongue ("I try to be rough all over") sounds like a come-on. Here's hoping the next time we need a tough girl heroine, we get someone closer to Smilla than Cinderella.

By Robin Dougherty

Robin Dougherty is a frequent contributor to Salon. She is a freelance writer who lives in Miami Beach.

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