Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997)


aka Smilla’s Feeling For Snow

Denmark/Germany/Sweden. 1997.


Director – Bille August, Screenplay – Ann Biderman, Based on the Novel Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, Producers – Bernd Eichinger & Martin Moskowicz, Photography – Jorgen Persson, Music – Harry Gregson-Williams & Hans Zimmer, Visual Effects – Cinesite (Supervisor – Brad Kuehn), Special Effects Supervisor – Peter Hutchinson, Production Design – Anna Asp. Production Company – FFA/Greenland Film Production/Nordic Film/Smilla Film A-S/TV Fund/Constantin Film Produktion GmbH/Dansk Filminstituit/Bavaria Film


Julia Ormond (Smilla Jaspersen), Gabriel Byrne (The Mechanic), Robert Loggia (Moritz Jaspersen), Richard Harris (Dr Andreas Tork), Jürgen Vogel (Nils Jakkelsen), Emma Croft (Benja), Clipper Maiano (Isaiah Christiansen), Bob Peck (Ravn), Vanessa Redgrave (Elsa Lubing), Agga Olsen (Juliane Christiansen), Peter Capaldi (Lander), Tom Wilkinson (Dr Johannes Loyen), Jim Broadbent (Lagermann)


Returning home to her apartment in Copenhagen, Smilla Jaspersen is shocked to find that Isaiah Christiansen, a neighbouring six year-old boy that she befriended, has fallen from the roof. The police dismiss it merely as Isaiah playing carelessly on the rooftop. Smilla, a native of Greenland, has an innate grasp of the subtle variations in the way snow falls and points out that Isaiah’s footprints run in a straight-line to the edge of the roof, which is not the way that children usually play. Joined by a neighbouring mechanic, Smilla begins her own investigation. She follows a trail that leads to the Greenland Mining Company. Her investigation provokes the company who try to stop her and then eliminate the witnesses that she contacts. As she digs further, she discovers that the murder of Isaiah somehow relates to discovery of a prehistoric meteorite made by the company in the remote Gela Alta region of Greenland.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow is adapted from a respectable literary source – Danish author Peter Høeg’s acclaimed novel Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992). The book was named as Best Novel by both Time and Entertainment Weekly upon its English-language release in 1993. Although you would hardly know it from the way that the film was promoted, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is actually a detective story. Moreover, it comes with a surprise science-fiction twist at the end. Not that the detective story, or for that matter the science-fiction aspects, were publicized when the film came out. Rather it was marketed as a serious highbrow drama, more along the lines of The English Patient (1996). This might normally seem like it was merely a detective story with pretensions. For once though, the literary focus contrives to give the film an intelligence and lack of formula that any generic constraint may have otherwise forced it into. Certainly, it is unusual in a story that one might otherwise perceive as belonging to the detective genre to see haunting meditations on the perfection of mathematics and the beauty of snow.

It is also a detective story that comes with an uncommon strength of characterization. The character of Smilla, removed from her natural environment, emotionally withdrawn and with an innate sense of the nature of snow, is a fascinating and deeply original creation. One of the standout aspects of the film is Julia Ormond, a highly talented actress who has been almost criminally neglected in the major recognition department and has almost entirely vanished from screens subsequent to this. It is she that succeeds in turning Smilla into a completely believable character on screen. You do not believe you are seeing an actress act, rather that you are seeing a real character on screen.

The Greenland locations are filmed with a glacial beauty, a cool that is only matched by the finesse of the story itself and the enrapt fascination it holds as it starts to unfold. I must admit that I am not a big fan of Danish director Bille August. Most of his reputation rests on Pelle the Conqueror (1987) about the harsh life of Danish immigrants, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but August disappointed with The House of the Spirits (1993), another quasi-genre work based on an acclaimed novel, and has done nothing of distinction since. Smilla’s Sense of Snow was given an indifferent critical reception when it came out, much of which seemed based on the story’s taking a turn into science-fiction at the ending (an aspect that comes direct from the book), but it is a strong and underrated film that is worthy of reconsideration.

(Winner for Best Actress (Julia Ormond), Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay at this site’s Best of 1997 Awards).

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