April 4, 1997 in Seven

Smilla’s Good Sense Julia Ormond Makes A Stunning Title Character In ‘Smilla’s Sense Of Snow’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

During its first half, when director Bille August manages to keep us still guessing, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” is a real treat. It feels like Winston Churchill’s age-old definition of Russia: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Then comes the second half. And the riddle of “Smilla” gradually becomes merely a murder mystery set in an enigmatic locale.

Based on the best-selling novel by Danish writer Peter Hoeg, “Smilla” begins strongly simply because August is able to rise above the story’s genre formulism. A filmmaker whose best works (“Pelle the Conqueror,” “The Best Intentions”) are intense studies of human interaction, August falters when his movie turns thriller.

In other words, when he goes Hollywood.

At the heart of matters is one Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond), a stunningly beautiful woman of Greenland heritage who is as brittle and unapproachable in character as she is unrelenting in attitude - especially when the situation suits her to be.

And it suits her to be all three when a young neighbor boy of Inuit heritage takes a flier off the top of her Copenhagen apartment building. To most observers, including the officials investigating, the death is an accident. But Smilla, a half-Greenland Inuit/half Danish lab worker, knows everything there is to know about snow.

In her opinion, it’s murder.

And so she starts her quest, sparked not only to solve what she sees as an unspeakable crime but also as a drive to quell the grief that she has carried, imbedded inside her like a smoldering flame, since childhood.

Her efforts bring her in contact with a seemingly friendly police officer (Bob Peck), a suspicious-seeming neighbor (Gabriel Byrne), her physician father (Robert Loggia) and, ultimately, the owner (Richard Harris) of a mining company that has ties with her native Greenland.

Along the way, Smilla’s trek toward the truth leads her to act like a junior James Bond - breaking into buildings, dodging attempts on her life and, most implausibly, sneaking onto transport ships bound for cold climes.

As August’s film devolves into thriller country, it suffers from the flaw of most such movies: If the powers-that-be feel so threatened by a disgruntled loner such as Smilla, why don’t they just eliminate her with the efficiency that they are obviously capable of bringing to bear?

Why? Because then there wouldn’t be a movie. Not one, at any rate, that Hollywood would embrace.

Despite its disappointing second half, though, “Smilla” does have its watchable aspects. What the film lacks (among other things, any sense of Hoeg’s meditative prose), it makes up for in visual images of Arctic ice. And Vanessa Redgrave is typically superb in her cameo as a religiously obsessed former employee of the mining company.

But it is luminescent Ormond who most commands our attention. Until now used mostly to decorate such minor entertainments as “Sabrina” and “First Knight,” or as a supporting player to the testosterone-laden stars of “Legends of the Fall,” Ormond comes into her own as Smilla.

Whether while first rebuffing and then embracing the doomed boy, icily rebuffing and then literally embracing her lone love interest, or struggling to put some meaning to her angst-ridden past, Ormond doesn’t play Smilla so much as become her. Even her accent sounds right.

If only August had given her a better forum from which to perform.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: “SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW” **-1/2 Locations: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Bille August, starring Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, Bob Peck Running time: 2 hours Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Smilla’s Sense of Snow:” Eric Hansen/The Hollywood Reporter: Besides some good ice photography, the strong point of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” is an articulate, self-confident and intellectually demanding woman character who is proud to be herself, no matter how unhappy. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: … though it’s a handsomely mounted, professional piece of work, “Smilla’s” has too many components, from its use of English to its cross-cultural cast, that are useful for international sales but make this film more routine than it ought to be. John Hartl/The Seattle Times: Too bad the script ultimately drifts off into Z-movie land - as well as z-z-z land. Seldom has a mystery that started with so much promise ended with so little purpose and polish. Henry Sheehan/The Orange County Register: Like its beautiful but inexpressive star, Julia Ormond, the movie often offers remarkably pretty sights but little coherence and almost no suspense. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Peter Hoeg’s 1993 best-selling novel … gets a disappointingly frozen screen telling in Bille August’s passionless and pared down film. Gary Schwan/Palm Beach Post: “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” sounds like a children’s book, looks like a travelogue, and brightens your day like a Scandinavian winter. Grim. And after a promising start, predictable. Frank Gabrenya/The Columbus Dispatch: Smilla’s Sense of Snow has to be the strangest title for a murder mystery.

These sidebars appeared with the story: “SMILLA’S SENSE OF SNOW” **-1/2 Locations: Newport Cinemas Credits: Directed by Bille August, starring Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, Bob Peck Running time: 2 hours Rating: R

OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Smilla’s Sense of Snow:” Eric Hansen/The Hollywood Reporter: Besides some good ice photography, the strong point of “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” is an articulate, self-confident and intellectually demanding woman character who is proud to be herself, no matter how unhappy. Kenneth Turan/Los Angeles Times: … though it’s a handsomely mounted, professional piece of work, “Smilla’s” has too many components, from its use of English to its cross-cultural cast, that are useful for international sales but make this film more routine than it ought to be. John Hartl/The Seattle Times: Too bad the script ultimately drifts off into Z-movie land - as well as z-z-z land. Seldom has a mystery that started with so much promise ended with so little purpose and polish. Henry Sheehan/The Orange County Register: Like its beautiful but inexpressive star, Julia Ormond, the movie often offers remarkably pretty sights but little coherence and almost no suspense. Paula Nechak/Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Peter Hoeg’s 1993 best-selling novel … gets a disappointingly frozen screen telling in Bille August’s passionless and pared down film. Gary Schwan/Palm Beach Post: “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” sounds like a children’s book, looks like a travelogue, and brightens your day like a Scandinavian winter. Grim. And after a promising start, predictable. Frank Gabrenya/The Columbus Dispatch: Smilla’s Sense of Snow has to be the strangest title for a murder mystery.


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