Smilla's Sense of Snow
Who is Smilla? How did she become such a fount of glaciological wisdom? And why is she such an unrelievedly gloomy Gus? Don’t count on any answers from Bille August’s frozen interpretation of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, which drips along about as slowly as a polar ice cap and leaves both those who know the international thriller on which this creepy-doings-off-the-coast-of-Greenland yarn is based and those who don’t out in the cold.
In Danish author Peter Hoeg’s 1993 best-seller, his arresting evocation of Smilla Jaspersen’s thorny personality is the best thing going; the next best thing is her edgy relationship with her equally hooded neighbor, known only as ”the mechanic,” who becomes her lover and gets involved in her obsessive investigation of the suspicious death of a young Inuit boy who falls off the roof of the apartment building they all share in Copenhagen. On the page, his heroine’s interesting psychic wounds and refreshing resourcefulness lift Hoeg’s convoluted story to a level of psychological intrigue; without a sense of Smilla (a scientist whose main beef appears to be that she was uprooted from an idyllic childhood in Greenland when her Inuit mother died), the story is an uninflected James Bondish thing involving a meteorite, a lethal prehistoric worm, and evil doings by a giant mining company that’s taken its dirty work far out to sea.
But on the screen, with a somnambulant Julia Ormond moping in the lead and a morose Gabriel Byrne as the mechanic working from an elliptical script by Ann Biderman (Primal Fear), there’s nothing but Bondishness; nearly all sense of personality has been stripped, leaving only striking panoramas of ice, and plenty of it, to suggest desolation, longing, fear, despair — all the human bits that make obsessions interesting. And thus deprived of a sense of soul and leached of literary interest (the fate, too, of The House of the Spirits, August’s previous brush with popular middle-brow lit), Smilla spins out of control. A procession of unknowable secondary characters (Vanessa Redgrave as a repentant former mining employee, Richard Harris as a suspicious tycoon, etc.) propel Smilla and sidekick through a jumble of random dangers, culminating in a showdown on a sea of ice floes. There, the dominant image is the unforgiving water — and the large North Face brand logo on the enemy’s jacket. Hoeg never wrote of outerwear. But with no inner life at its core, an advertisement for goose-down jackets is as reasonable a parting shot as anything else in this stranded production.