Smilla's Sense of Snow
directed by Bille August
20th Century Fox, 1997

The number of big-screen films made about Greenland you can count on the fingers of one finger.

The number of big-screen mysteries made about Greenland which take place mostly in Copenhagen is an even more select group. It's called Smilla's Sense of Snow, and it's a very good sense even when it's not a very good film, which is mostly in the last 20 minutes.

Indeed, the first hour and a half are promising enough.

Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond), a half-Inuit woman living in Copenhagen, returns to her apartment building one day to find the police buzzing about the body of a young Inuit boy (Clipper Miano) lying dead in the snow. The police have already ruled the boy's death an accident, but Smilla is certain it's not: A quick look at the boy's footprints on the snow-covered roof tells her that he wasn't playing there, as the police concluded, and that he hadn't slipped off accidentally -- he was running away from someone.

Her suspicions are further aroused when she learns that the boy's father also died under mysterious circumstances during a mining expedition in Greenland -- and that the boy was present at his father's death.

In typical mystery fashion, the more Smilla learns, the less she knows. In short order she discovers that the boy's autopsy was performed by a famous scientist instead of the usual coroner, that a biopsy was performed by an unknown person on the boy's body before the autopsy and that the boy had been receiving monthly health examinations courtesy of the Greenland Mining Company.

Aiding her in her search for the truth are her widowed father (Robert Loggia), a doctor living in Copenhagen, and a neighbor (Gabriel Byrne) who may or may not be working for the Greenland Mining Company. Getting in her way are just about everyone else, chief among them Tork Hviid (Richard Harris), head of the Greenland Mining Company, and the Danish police, who themselves seem guilty of having read too much Kafka.

Smilla has much going for it: crisp cinematography that captures Copenhagen's cold angularity, an overwhelming sense of the ominous, and a premise that's either unique or far-fetched, depending on your point of view.

Also, there are scenes of real terror -- a life-threatening explosion and fire on a museum ship, for instance -- and of real wonder on the ice packs of Greenland.

And Ormond does a superb job playing the enigmatic Smilla, a modern-day snow queen whose heart is frozen to all but the young innocent who's snatched from her by forces beyond her ken.

Unfortunately, Smilla director Bille August did not seem to share Smilla's good sense, and by the final reel, Smilla has mutated from an offbeat mystery into a pat sci-fi thriller, full of unnecessary complications, predictable plot twists and gratuitous pyrotechnics. As the mystery unravels, so does the wonder in which it was wrapped. Finally, only Greenland's shifting ice floes remain to spark our imagination.

Someday, Smilla may be remade with a more satisfying ending. Until then, we'll have to be satisfied with five-sixths of a great film.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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