"Smilla's Sense of Snow"
Opened: Friday, March 14, 1997 | Rated: R
An Inuit boy living in Copenhagen is chased off a roof on a winter afternoon, but his death is mysteriously ruled an accident. His friend and neighbor tries to uncover the truth and finds conspiracy at every turn.
The first two acts of "Smilla's Sense of Snow" are moody and suspenseful as Smilla, a half-American, half-Inuit scientist played by Julia Ormond ("Sabrina"), finds herself running for her life after stumbling on to a cover-up of apparent experiments by geneticists in which the boy was a guinea pig.
Ormond, whose career hasn't taken off as was predicted when she was hailed as the next big thing after "Legends of the Fall," carries the moody, suspenseful story through it's shadowy first stages with a measured intensity.
She delivers a strong performance as a cold, logical woman whose emotional control is tested by the death of the child with whom she had reluctantly formed a bond.
But after an hour of cryptic discoveries that mean nothing until the last reel anyway, "Sense of Snow" drops it's cerebral edge and becomes nothing but a vengeance thriller with all the engagement of a TV movie-of-the-week.
Beginning with the kid's murder and Smilla's insistence that it wasn't an accident (her proof of foul play stems from her remarkable understanding of snow, thus the laughable title), director Bille August ("Pelle the Conqueror," "The House of the Spirits") builds a thick paranoia as she digs for the truth with the help of a quiet, insightful neighbor (Gabriel Byrne), who also isn't what he seems.
As she is tailed by an exec from a mining company (Richard Harris), she uncovers irregularities in the boy's autopsy. She finds a secretary retired from the mining company (Vanessa Redgrave) who leads her to break in to a secured company archive. There she reads that the boy's father was killed in an accident on a hushed-up expedition in Greenland, which is somehow tied to the boy's death as well.
Beautifully shot in icy blue hues, "Sense of Snow" feels taut and dangerous until Smilla's investigation leads her to stow away on a science vessel making for the Arctic with many of the conspirators on board.
Once on the boat, the movie abandons every hint of intelligence and falls apart. While she sneaks around the ship it's nothing but a hero-hiding-in-the-air-ducts action movie. With the arrival at a remote outpost in Greenland where a meteor from Krypton (or something nearly as silly) is buried, we're treated to random flashes of science fiction interspersed with shoot-outs.
The last 30 minutes of the movie becomes more trite and absurd with every passing moment. Eventually the audience forgets the story and begins to feel sorry for Ormond, having tried so hard to create an astute, absorbing character for a movie that is beaten senseless by blunt plot devices.