n a cold December day in Copenhagen, a young boy named Isaiah falls to his death from the roof of the block of flats where he lives. The official police view is that he slipped and fell while playing on the roof. Smilla Jaspersen, a neighbour of Isaiah and his mother, does not accept that his death was an accident. Isaiah had a fear of heights, so was unlikely to have been playing on the roof; moreover, the footprints in the snow do not support the police version. Smilla therefore decides to start her own investigation to find out what really happened.
Isaiah and his mother belonged to Denmark's Greenlandic minority, and Smilla herself grew up in Greenland, the daughter of a Danish father and Greenlandic mother. She is in her late thirties, and works as a freelance mathematician and expert on the physics of ice and snow, although she has no formal academic qualifications. She discovers, however, that Isaiah's father was an employee of a Danish mining corporation and that he died in mysterious circumstances during an expedition to Greenland organised by this corporation. She begins to suspect that Isaiah's death was also in some way linked to the company, and learns that they are organising another voyage to Gela Alta, a small island off the coast of Greenland, although she does not know what the object of this voyage is. Nevertheless, she believes that the key to the mystery lies on this remote island and joins the crew of the ship as a stewardess, just ahead of the police who resent her interference in the case and are trying to arrest her.
This was one of those films that I enjoyed more than the original novel. Peter Hoeg's book was itself in some ways reminiscent of a film. The first half, with its urban setting, its tough, gritty investigator and its suggestion of a web of corruption and wrongdoing in high places, reminded me of a Humphrey Bogart style film noir, and the second part, set on the ship as it makes its way through the Arctic ice, of one of those filmed versions of Alistair MacLean thrillers that were so popular in the sixties and seventies. I found, however, that it suffered from an over-complex plot and was too slow moving to work as a thriller. Bille August's version removes some of the complexity of the plot and moves along at a faster pace. The revelation about exactly what lies below the ice comes earlier in the film than it does in the book- possibly August realized that the book's ending, more science fiction than science fact, was one of its weak points, and wanted to get this detail out of the way to allow the closing scenes of the film to concentrate more on the battle between Smilla and the villains. The film keeps, however, the book's atmospheric sense of place- there were some wonderful shots of Copenhagen in winter and of the Arctic ice.
Julia Ormond seemed to be the cinema's Big New Thing of the mid-nineties. Her role in 'Smilla's Sense of Snow' followed starring roles in three big Hollywood films, 'Legends of the Fall', 'First Knight' and 'Sabrina'. Since then she seems to have disappeared from the radar altogether and I have often wondered what has happened to her.. Her performance in 'Smilla', however, is a good one and she makes an appealing heroine. Rather more appealing, in fact, than Hoeg's original character, who combines a strong sense of justice with a gift for rudeness and sarcasm. Of the other actors, the best was Richard Harris as the chief villain, although he was probably considerably older than the character envisaged by Hoeg.
Although it is very different in its visual style, this atmospheric thriller is perhaps the nearest that the modern cinema comes to old-fashioned film noir. Despite its weaknesses it remained watchable throughout. It confirmed my view (based on 'Pelle the Conqueror' and 'The House of the Spirits') that Bille August is a highly talented director. 7/10