Smilla (Julia Ormond) is a Greenlandic immigrant living in Copenhagen. When a young boy living in her apartment building is found dead, having fallen of the building’s roof, Smilla refuses to accept that it was an accident. Her investigations draw her into what appears to be an international conspiracy involving a prominent doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and the head of a mining company (Richard Harris) conducting mysterious expeditions in Greenland.
The so-called ‘nordic noir’ genre has really fired up both book readers and film and television viewers in recent years. Audiences have lapped up these dark, aesthetically miserable crime stories set and produced in a variety of Scandinavian countries. Most people would likely point to Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as the original work that kickstarted the craze, and in a fully mainstream sense I suppose that it did. Those with slightly longer memories, however, will remember that it had its antecedents, and one of the most prominent of those was Peter Høeg’s 1992 novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It was an international literary success, and like many such literary successes it soon inspired its own feature film adaptation: in this case Bille August’s 1997 thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow.
Julia Ormond does a sensational job playing Smilla, a Greenlandic women taken to Denmark as a child following the death of her mother. Greenland has never left her: she craves its vast, frozen spaces, and has made an entire career out of being a scientist specialising in snow. She has also befriended Isaiah, a sickly boy that lived in the Copenhagen apartment below hers. When his dead body is found on the street, with his footprints showing him running to the edge before falling, the police seem set on writing off the death as an accident. Smilla, seeing the footprints in the snow, wants to know from what Isaiah was running when he fell.
Smilla’s investigation puts her in immediate conflict with not only the Copenhagen police but also the shadowy Greenland Mining company, who do not take kindly to their financial investments being threatened by her questioning. As a relatively blunt, anti-social and obsessive woman, Smilla dives headlong into quite serious trouble – before long her very life is at risk. She is a wonderful character, and you can clearly see her influence over the likes of Lisbeth Salander: a deeply unhappy past, an inability to trust others, a dogged refusal to quit, and a tendency to ignore social niceties when she is hunting down the truth. Ormond does a wonderful job of playing the character, striking an effective balance between strength and vulnerability.
The film boasts a remarkable range of supporting actors, almost all of whom are men – another thing with which Smilla’s Sense of Snow holds a similarity to Larsson’s trilogy. What is even more odd is just how many of them are British character actors, including Richard Harris, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson, Bob Peck and a surprisingly young and foppish Peter Capaldi. Also co-starring is Gabriel Byrne as Smilla’s other neighbour, an awkward and stuttering mechanic who seems increasingly untrustworthy as the film goes on.
The film looks fantastic, thanks to some great Arctic scenery and effective photography by DOP Jörgen Persson. The musical score, by Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer, is stunning. It is one of the best 1990 scores by either composer. The pace and tone is gripping and bleak, and altogether it forms a hugely entertaining and mature thriller.
What a pity, then, that the film’s third act feels so jarring against the preceding hour and a half. When confined to the city, and with Smilla filled with questions but no answers, the film is excellent. Once it reaches its climax, with Smilla boarding an icebreaker ship for a Greenland mine site, it all seems to lose complexity and effectiveness. There is an unexpected shift towards a light sort of science fiction, which actually works surprisingly well, but the answers Smilla gets feel annoyingly simple and direct, and the actual finale rather truncated and convenient. Thankfully the style established so well in the earlier part of the film do hold, papering over the cracks in the walls somewhat, but it is a slightly frustrating way for the film to end.
Despite its faults, Smilla’s Sense of Snow is a strong and entertaining feature; one that seemed a little overlooked by audiences at the time. Twenty years later it feels due for a small reappraisal and a revival, and a proper acknowledgement of both the film and the novel’s influence over its genre.