Snow Cake

The dramatic icing is spread pretty thin over "Snow Cake," a small-scale, minutely observed yarn about a buttoned-up Brit and hyperactive autistic woman. Boosted by a delish performance from Carrie-Anne Moss, but holed beneath the waterline by a gratingly miscast Sigourney Weaver as the persnickety autistic, modest item looks set for equally modest B.O.

The dramatic icing is spread pretty thin over “Snow Cake,” a small-scale, minutely observed yarn about a buttoned-up Brit and hyperactive autistic woman thrown together in a wintry Canadian township. Boosted by a delish performance from Carrie-Anne Moss as a local vamp who helps unthaw the Englishman, but holed beneath the waterline by a gratingly miscast Sigourney Weaver as the persnickety autistic, modest item looks set for equally modest B.O. Choice as the opening night film of the 56th Berlinale is surprising, to say the least.

Enjoying a quiet read in a Northern Ontario roadside diner, middle-aged Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) grudgingly shares his table with a 19-year-old motormouth, Vivienne (Emily Hampshire). He’s on his way to Winnipeg, and she’s looking for a ride to her hometown, Wawa. Agreeing to take her along — one of several niggling implausibilities in first-timer Angela Pell’s script — Alex finds Vivienne isn’t fazed even when he says he’s just gotten out of prison. “I killed someone,” he adds. “O.K.,” she replies.

On the plus side, the sheer unlikelihood of two such people ever sharing a car together does decoy the audience’s attention prior to a smartly edited shock, as a large truck plows into the vehicle. Vivienne is killed instantly, but Alex survives. Though still woozy, he feels the need to tell Vivienne’s mother face to face and takes a bus into Wawa.

Alex’s second surprise of the day is that the teen’s mom, Linda (Weaver), takes the news hardly missing a beat. Divorced of regular emotions, and obsessively tidy and logical, Linda is a “high functioning” autistic. The far more traumatized Alex ends up sleeping over at Linda’s and soon finds himself drawn into her life as a temporary housemate until the funeral a few days later.

Even allowing for Linda’s affliction, there’s so little chemistry between the two protags that it’s a relief when Alex bumps into Linda’s foxy neighbor, Maggie (Moss). Maggie invites Alex to dinner, but they end up skipping the food in favor of a roll in the hay.

It’s this relationship that becomes the pic’s emotional core. But Maggie is essentially a supporting character and, however well she’s played by Moss, it can’t compensate for the yawning gap at what should be the movie’s center.

Lack of dramatic intensity is all the more surprising considering the emotional clout of helmer Marc Evans’ two best movies, the chilling “Resurrection Man” and scarefest “My Little Eye.”

Screenwriter Pell, whose background is largely in sitcoms, has an autistic young son, and Weaver has all the small obsessions of her character down pat; but neither she nor the script give Linda much room to maneuver. Rickman, a cool actor at the best of times, takes a while to deliver a rounded perf as a guy saddled with two deaths for which he feels responsible. He does, however, rise to the script’s occasional moments of wry humor, more of which would have been welcome.

It’s Moss, however, who makes the picture worth seeing. Canuck thesp is aces as Maggie, without overplaying either the seductress or the lonely small-town femme. Her natural chemistry with Rickman pays dividends in their final scene, which delivers the only real emotional oomph in the movie.

Tech package is clean and composed, with Steve Cosens’ photography of Wawa and Michipicoten township blending seamlessly with Toronto studio interiors. Running time could easily lose 10 minutes, and pic may play even better on the small screen.

Snow Cake

U.K.-Canada

Production

A Momentum Pictures (in U.K.)/TVA Films (in Canada) release of a U.K. Film Council/Telefilm Canada presentation, in association with Baby Cow Prods., TVA Films, BBC2 Films, the Movie Network, Chum Television and Movie Central, of a Revolution Films (U.K.)/Rhombus Media (Canada) production, with participation of Astral Media, Canadian Television Fund. (International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales, Amsterdam.) Produced by Gina Carter, Jessica Daniel, Andrew Eaton, Niv Fichman. Executive producers, Robert Jones, Michael Winterbottom, David M. Thompson, Henry Normal, Steve Coogan. Co-producer, Sheena Macdonald. Directed by Marc Evans. Screenplay, Angela Pell.

Crew

Camera (color), Steve Cosens; editor, Marguerite Arnold; music, Broken Social Scene; production designer, Matthew Davies; art director, Peter Emmink; costume desinger, Debra Hanson; sound (Dolby Digital), Rob Fletcher, Paul Cotterell; associate producers, Larry Weinstein, Barbara Willis Sweete; assistant director, Laurie Mirsky; casting, John Buchan. Reviewed at CFC preview theater, London, Jan. 25, 2006. (In Berlin Film Festival, opener, competing.) Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Alex Hughes - Alan Rickman Linda Freeman - Sigourney Weaver Maggie - Carrie-Anne Moss Vivienne - Emily Hampshire Clyde - James Allodi
With: Janet Van De Graaf, Julie Stewart, Selina Cadell, Callum Keith Rennie, David Fox, Jayne Eastwood, John Bayliss, Jackie Laidlaw, Susan Coyne, Robert Smith Jones.

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