Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smart thrillers are such an endangered species – pale imitations such as Shadow Conspiracy are what we get instead – that it would be churlish to dismiss this mesmerizing mystery just because the plot fades in the homestretch. Based on the best-selling novel by Danish author Peter Hoeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow hooks you with insinuating power from the first scene.

Smilla Jasperson (Julia Ormond), the scientist daughter of an American father and a Greenlandic-Inuit mother, returns to her apartment in Copenhagen, Denmark, to find that Isaiah (Clipper Miano), a 6-year-old Inuit boy who lives in her building, has fallen from the roof to his death. At least that's what the police say. Smilla disagrees. Isaiah has always been terrified of heights, and there is something amiss about the boy's prints in the snow. On the roof, she realizes at a glance that these are the tracks of a boy being chased, not a boy at play. Her investigation leads her to a corporate conspiracy involving Tork (Richard Harris), a tycoon; Elsa (Vanessa Redgrave), a former employee of Tork's; and a mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), a shady, flirtatious figure who lives in Smilla's building.

The movie, directed by Hoeg's fellow Dane Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and adapted by Ann Biderman (Primal Fear), baffles us with convoluted clues, but with this cast, who's complaining? Ormond radiates a cool intelligence that works with the chill she gives off even in such romantic films as Legends of the Fall and First Knight, where a chill is inappropriate. Trained on the British stage, Ormond was all wrong for the lead in Sabrina, a role that required a movie star, namely Audrey Hepburn, who exuded sexy warmth in the 1954 screen version. Ormond isn't a movie star; she's an actress – and here, a damn fine one.

At odds with the big-city clutter and noise of Copenhagen, Smilla takes comfort in the clarity of numbers. When she first encounters Isaiah, she calls the boy a "little shit," tells him he stinks and grudgingly reads to him – Euclid, not Aesop. Ormond and Miano work beautifully together, establishing a growing bond that leads to something as close as Smilla has ever come to love.

August and cinematographer Jorgen Persson achieve wonders when Smilla sets sail on an Arctic ship for her childhood home in Greenland, where the puzzle pieces are linked. If the solution is a disappointment, Greenland – making its debut in a feature film – is not. In the island's icy caves, the movie comes close to capturing the beauty and pain that drive Smilla so lyrically and dangerously in the novel. What intrigues us is the conflict raging in Smilla's head. Flawed film; fascinating character.

From The Archives Issue 756: March 20, 1997