Smilla's Sense of Snow feels like two movies.
The first of them addresses the animating drama of the original Peter Hoeg novel--the quest of its young scientist/heroine, who is Greenlandic Inuit on her mother's side and Danish on her father's, to break out of cultural exile in Copenhagen and reclaim her identity in the face of former colonialists. This is the meaty part.
The second movie, tenuously connected to the first by the mysterious death of a boy, is a collection of action cliches involving a nineteenth-century asteroid hit, a greedy mining company and secret experiments in a remote ice cave. Hoeg worked some of this stuff in, too. But for the moviemakers, this is clearly the sell-'em-tickets part. It comes complete with a couple of devious district attorney types, a platoon of knife-wielding thugs and a suave villain named Tork, who seems to have dropped in from a James Bond picture.
What to do? Admire director Bille August's deft exploration of a woman disconnected from her roots and a splendidly shaded performance by lovely Julia Ormond--and try to ignore the cheesy derring-do? Or make a bargain with yourself to simply accept the mediocre movie riding on the back of the inventive one?
Choose the last, and Smilla can provide a good deal of pleasure. August (Pelle the Conqueror, The House of the Spirits) and screenwriter Ann Biderman have retained enough of Hoeg's psychological inquiry to give Ormond her best opportunity yet to improve on Legends of the Fall and the remake of Sabrina. In Smilla Jaspersen (half Inuit and half American now), Ormond gives us a cool, tough, single-minded heroine who has actual dramatic motivation for seeking justice against the forces of evil. No one has to pump her full of amnesia to rise up and fight, as was done to Geena Davis in The Long Kiss Goodnight. She doesn't have to be a bad girl reprogrammed as a government assassin, a la La Femme Nikita.
No, it simply matters that the six-year-old who suspiciously "falls" off the snowy roof of Smilla's apartment building is an Inuit boy whom this icy woman came to love--a reminder of her lost self. "The way you have a sense of God," she tells another character, "I have a sense of snow." So, from the tiny sneakerprints on the roof to the trackless tundra of her native landscape, Smilla trusts her long-submerged sense to solve a crime and rediscover her own nature. Most contemporary action movies with female protagonists are really exercises in cross-dressing: The Stallone role, the Van Damme part, is simply transferred to a woman. But Smilla is a woman.
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Some conventions rankle. Smilla's got a sidekick (Gabriel Byrne) who wants to fall in love with her. She's got that American father (Robert Loggia), who has a moron for a girlfriend (Emma Croft), and the villainous Tork (enter booming Richard Harris) descends straight from Dr. No and Blofeld.
However, the film's glacial Greenland locations and its fascinating looks at Copenhagen are spectacularly captured by cinematographer Jorgen Persson. There's some taut intrigue aboard a rusty old freighter called the Kronos. And Smilla Jaspersen emerges as the most compelling movie heroine of what might be the post-woman-in-jeopardy era. In the end, the good movie inside Smilla's Sense of Snow overwhelms the bad one.
Smilla's Sense of Snow.
Screenplay by Ann Biderman, from a novel by Peter Hoeg. Directed by Bille August. With Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Loggia and Richard Harris.