'Smilla' starts well, then falls apart

March 21, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

It isn't Smilla's sense of snow that's doubtful, it's the director's sense of story.

Smilla Jaspersen, a no-nonsense amateur detective working the Copenhagen beat, takes no bushwa from anybody and can out-stare and outwit any cop on the force. On top of that, she's beautiful. And she makes a terrific movie character. Too bad nobody built a terrific movie around her.

Played by Julia Ormond (she's beautiful, too), Smilla is one of nature's natural loners, resilient, fearless, uncowed by authority, an inheritor of the mantel of some great Yank professional prototypes, like your Marlowes and your Archers. And "Smilla's Sense of Snow," the film derived from the best-selling Danish novel by Peter Hoeg, spends about an hour tracking Smilla as she tracks the killers of a neighbor boy whom the police rule dead by accident.

Smilla knows better because of her sense of snow. Half-Inuit, half-American (half Dane in the novel), she's got the aboriginal gift for reading the landscape. When she looks at the boy's tracks on the roof of the building off of which he fell "while playing," she knows that he was running in a straight line.

"No child on earth plays like that," she says, and soon she's poking around at the morgue, where the boy's autopsy was handled not by the local yokel but by a big-deal pathologist who happens to be on the board of directors of a huge mining company.

And soon enough, a neighbor is showing up too continually for coincidence. This is Gabriel Byrne, who also loved the dead boy; but his connection to the conspiracy that appears to have XTC enmeshed the boy remains ambiguous -- interesting, but ambiguous.

For an hour, everything in "Smilla" is interesting, every relationship tense, every exchange incisive. I particularly liked the intense hostility between Smilla and her father's young girlfriend, which befuddles the old man (blowhard Robert Loggia) into trying to keep the peace between them.

Most important, for its first hour, the film is pure mystery. It's a drama of intellect, and we see Smilla outthinking the police, we feel the force of her mind as it thrashes with the problems before her and watch her fascinating solution. That's what's so attractive about her, well beyond her beauty and isolation.

But at the halfway point, "Smilla" nose-dives into the slush. I understand the same thing happened in the novel, so perhaps it's not fair to blame director Bille August and screenwriter Ann Biderman. Still, their job was to fix and they didn't. No matter who's to blame, the thing goes all mushy on us. From a tense, pointed noir set in the fascinating intersection between the Danish underworld and high-stakes corporate interests, it turns into a routine, silly thriller involving those staples from Thirties serials: meteorites with secret powers and prehistoric creatures thawed from the ice.

The movie just becomes preposterous when Smilla sneaks aboard a mystery ship headed back to Greenland for sneaky business, creeps about it, discovers things, escapes and returns (twice). Poor Richard Harris shows up as the mining company exec who doesn't have a line until the end: it's just that he looks so vulpine we know he's the villain.

The thriller aspects don't work: They build from the illogical to the pyrotechnical. Is there anybody out there who has to see more explosions? How many explosions do you need before you call it a life? I could live forever without seeing one more explosion. When things start blowing up in "Smilla's Sense of Snow," it's all over. The gratuitous physical action all but squanders the mystery of the brilliant Greenland setting, and in some way distances us from Smilla's mind, which was clearly influenced by that setting.

The movie, with all its beautiful wickedness, melts so completely there's nothing remaining but a puddle. From a Danish "Maltese Falcon" to the last reel of "Frosty the Snowman" in two hours. That's quite a trick, but not one worth seeing.

'Smilla's Sense of Snow'

Starring Julia Ormond and Gabriel Byrne

Directed by Bille August

Released by Fox-Searchlight

Rated R (violence and sexual content)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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