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Slo-Mo 'Snow': A Plot of Glacial Speed

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 14, 1997

Snails move faster than "Smilla's Sense of Snow," and that's after they've been drowned in garlic butter. Elderly sloths, tortoises with bunions, even campaign finance reformers fairly scoot along compared with Bille August's deliberate adaptation of Peter Hoeg's cerebral thriller about dark doings in Copenhagen.

August, whom Ingmar Bergman chose to direct his memoir "The Best Intentions," brings enormous intelligence, a winning way with actors and a sense of Danish soul to the work. But when it comes to thrillers, that's not enough. You need momentum, suspense, a bit of muscle, the sort of flash that fellow Scandinavian Renny Harlin of "Cliffhanger" brings to the table.

And that's especially true in this case, for "Smilla's Sense of Snow" is not only dense, dark and deeply introspective, it's also as remote as it's chilly, half-Inuit heroine. Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond), whose other half is American, spent her early childhood in the icy blue expanses of Greenland, hunting seal with her Inuit mother. When her mother died, the 6-year-old Smilla moved to the confines of Copenhagen with her father (Robert Loggia).

Though she has grown into a scientist of some repute, Smilla has never truly adapted to city life, preferring to live with her memories of Greenland. At one with snow and ice, she is a cynic and a loner whose only interests are mathematics and the 6-year-old Inuit boy who lives downstairs with his mother, a widowed Greenlander with an alcohol problem.

Smilla is forced out of her isolation when she returns home one night to find the child dead in the Christmas snow. The authorities rule his death was accidental, but Smilla suspects foul play and, with the help of an enigmatic neighbor (Gabriel Byrne), sets out after the truth. And before you can say "mush," her cold heart thaws.

But don't expect to see northern lights and Lapp dancing, because Smilla is never more than lukewarm. Truth be told, she's meaner than cat box odor. Unfortunately, many of the psychological qualities that make her intriguing on paper come off as sheer cussedness on film. While flashbacks supply clues to her character, Ormond's butt-kicking ice queen isn't about to melt any hearts.

Ormond, who previously starred in "Sabrina," is persuasive in the role of super sleuth, though she is tangled up in the increasingly labyrinthine story line, which details a plot so insidiously all-encompassing it makes the most paranoid episodes of "The X-Files" seem almost down-to-earth.

Smilla's Sense of Snow is rated R for language, violence and a brief sex scene.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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