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3 reviews, 19 user ratings

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Smilla's Sense of Snow
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by Jack Sommersby

"That Rare Film Adaptation That Does Justice to Its Source Material"
4 stars

In a day and age where so-called thrillers are almost always disappointing, here is one out of left field that hits a solid triple.

Julia Ormond finally comes into her own in the new thriller Smilla's Sense of Snow, which is a good thing being that she seemed so lost and askew in her last film, 1994's ludicrous Legends of the Fall, which hammered her with a screenplay that was an idiotic hodgepodge of chumped-up romanticism and second-rate dramatics. Yet she was given a fair opportunity in the mild Sabrina a year later to be charismatically appealing and sexy, and failed at both. Ormond's photogenic enough, to be sure, but up until now she seemed to lack the most necessary trait in American actors: internal life. She wasn't woefully bad, just vapid and underscaled. Thankfully, she's been given another chance by celebrated novelist Peter Hoeg and international director Billie August, and she hits it right out of the park.

The film is based on Hoeg's best-selling novel, which has been respectfully translated to the silver screen. The setting is Copenhagen, Denmark, a city where frigid temperatures and bucket-loads of snow are a daily norm. The lonely heroine, Smilla (Ormond), lives in a densely-populated apartment building where she keeps mostly to herself and has sunk into a bland existence of anonymity. Smilla is a born native who loves and treasures the hidden mysteries that snow can hide and reveal, but her mother's dead and her father (Robert Loggia, terrific as always) lives with a materialistic young bimbo in a fancy high-rise. She's pretty much cut off her family channels but fondly recollects her inseparable times with her mother. Smilla, in fact, shares the same rare gift that her mother had: an instinctive, unmistakable sense of snow -- the substance sets off her sense of perception like a piece of clothing would a bloodhound's sense of smell. As a little girl, she could be left alone in unfamiliar snow-covered terrain and find her way back with a navigator's ease. Now, pent up in her apartment, she misses the stimulative possibilities that the great outdoors can bring. But her dour existence is enlivened when a most tragic event occurs right outside her building: a six-year-old boy, who apparently fell off the roof, is found dead on the sidewalk.

Smilla was the only one in the building who knew the boy well (better than his drug-addicted mother), and the film affords us touching flashbacks that chart her course from impersonal neighbor to caring friend; these scenes are agreeably drawn out by director August, and the effect is as naturally gentile as one could ask. The neighbors and police are convinced that it's an accident, but Smilla doesn't. She goes up to the rooftop and examines the footprints, where she points out to the cops that the pattern of the tracks are inconsistent with the presumed hypothesis -- the steps are too far apart and indicate that the boy was running away and not casually playing about. They're not interested, though, and she relates her theory to her neighbor (an appealing Gabriel Byrne), who in turn tells her she's inventing unnecessary anxieties due to her personal relationship with the boy. She then goes to the coroner's office and is surprised to learn the Chief Medical Examiner is performing the autopsy, which she knows is quite rare given that the initial nature of the death has been unofficially ruled as accidental; the coroner does manage to tell her that he's detected faint traces of radiation in the blood work and found small puncture marks in the boy's arms.

From here, Smilla's Sense of Snow follows a well-established path where the innocent hero or heroine attempts to get at the seemingly unattainable truth and is thrown into the midst of a conglomerate of cover-ups and untrustworthy companions. It's very important not to give too much in the way of further plot developments; the real pleasure of the film is the joy one gets by not quite knowing where it's headed. If the film had an inept screenplay this would be bothersome, but this film's screenplay is so concise and the pacing so assured you might feel justifiably giddy as the plot connections snap together with joyful precision yet without a mechanically perfunctory motions aimlessly wheeling away. The viewer knows only as much as Smilla, and we uncover each piece of evidence and are able to assimilate it with an unbridled sense of immediacy -- the film has a you-are-there vitality which transports us from the cushioned comforts of our seats to this hypnotically atmospheric world in a maze of uncertainty and fascination. Further, cinematographer Jorgen Presson's extraordinary widescreen photography is so chock-full of color and depth that it makes the film-going experience even more pleasurable.

As stated before, Julia Ormond gives a terrific performance in a complex, intelligent part. Smilla's main role is to function as the film's reactionary component: we see everything through her eyes, and it's imperative that we believe in her nature -- if her eccentricities were overplayed the assured narrative would collapse, but Ormond goes the wise route by underplaying vividly and superbly. Gabriel Byrne contributes a solid portrait in a somewhat underwritten role. And the forceful Robert Loggia continues to demonstrate why he's one of our finest character actors. He's not required to do anything particularly spectacular, and yet he has the uncanny ability of getting under a character's skin and making it his own without abandoning the role's necessary qualities.

Billie August's inventively controlled direction is another of the film's many surprises. His credits include Pelle the Conqueror, with Max Von Sydow, and The Best Intentions, which was scripted by Ingmar Bergman; his previous directing was adequate but lacked a cinematic zeal necessary for the fruitful fusion of words and images. (Pelle was like a talking-book for the sensory-impaired.) His craftsmanship here is a whole lot more confident, and he's acquired a viable film sense that's integral for the Mystery genre. August manages to produce tension and scares through patiently enveloping us with intricate shadows and faint sounds while never settling for quick "Boo!" effects. A person has the right to call himself a fine director who can maximize and sustain tension through a minimalist, respectful approach and is also able to endow the scenes with the right amount of charge and tempo.

Admittedly, the last fourth is a little weak. All of the plot points are conveniently wrapped up and explained in such an organized manner that it threatens to counteract the hypnotic spell the film has so expertly worked up -- the screenplay's core feels a little hollow because of it. To be sure, this last section is by no means bad and is brought off with more finesse than most Hollywood products, but it's a small price to pay for having such an original and mesmerizing entertainment to bless our senses with. Up until the finale, we've been considerably spoiled by superior filmmaking that's been spiced with enjoyable amounts of imaginative bravado, so when we encounter a piece that falls a little flat, there's the natural tendency to nitpick. Then again, it's also a given to appreciate and respect the overall meal, even if the dessert plate is a bit of a letdown.

See it.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=289&reviewer=327
originally posted: 11/09/07 22:50:33
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User Comments

7/24/08 A.Swenson Heroine couldnt act, poor directing & story line full of holes! Dont waste your time. 1 stars
8/08/05 jeanne Slyder, you're a simpleton and a potty mouth - AND GET YOUR PRONOUNS STRAIGHT, you moron! 4 stars
10/21/03 prince6 Julia Ormond is absolutely stunning! 5 stars
8/15/03 RCP Loved Gabriel Byrne! 4 stars
3/03/03 Jack Sommersby An original, taut, atmospheric thriller. If only the finale weren't so absurd! 4 stars
12/08/02 R.W. Welch Intriguing at first, then goes stupifyingly formulaic right before your eyes. 3 stars
10/03/02 Lauren Excellent 5 stars
7/04/02 Charles Tatum Great film, so different than the dreck out there 4 stars
4/01/02 Nick Adams Excellent suspense. Liked the plot development better than the denouement. 4 stars
2/26/02 stargazer film was a major disappointment--slow as mud, and SO convoluted! 2 stars
12/21/01 Sarah A film I found to be well written, and exciting 5 stars
11/06/01 Butterbean Fast pace, Julia was great in it. 4 stars
9/28/01 twodogs don't miss this one 4 stars
2/16/01 Jake Decent set up and then a mess 2 stars
2/06/01 Kate It´s a very good movie.Julia is a great actress 5 stars
4/11/99 Alonzo The book was sooooo much better than this movie. Julia Ormond did okay considering script 3 stars
10/07/98 Maegs Decent murder mystery, until the last 1/4 3 stars
9/27/98 BBReBozo The title isn't HALF as pretentious as this miserable dreck. 1 stars
8/20/98 The Man With The Helmet What the hell went on here? Snow was a rapper. He's not in this. 2 stars
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  28-Feb-1997 (R)
  DVD: 21-May-2002



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