An exceedingly sleek and handsome thriller, this ambitious European co-production, like the novel on which it’s quite faithfully based, starts intriguingly but fails to stay the distance. Though arguably miscast as a half-Inuit, half-Danish scientist-turned-private investigator, Julia Ormond dominates the film with a most engaging performance, but, as in the book, the plotting gets murkier and less credible as the mystery unfolds. Though never dull, Bille August’s film ultimately fails to deliver on initial expectations and looms as only a medium-level box office draw for Fox Searchlight.
Peter Hoeg’s poetically written tome had as its central character a lonely but strong-willed Copenhagen resident, raised by her Inuit mother in Greenland, but attracted to science and mathematics thanks to her Danish doctor father (changed to an American on screen, dynamically portrayed by Robert Loggia). Ormond, while looking great and delivering a good, old-fashioned star performance, doesn’t really resemble the character in the book, and Smilla Jasperson’s motivations may not always be clear to the uninitiated.
Pic begins excitingly with a spectacular sequence, not in the novel, set in Greenland in the distant past. An Inuit hunter, waiting for seals to emerge from beneath the ice, is startled by what appears to be a meteorite crashing nearby; as he tries to flee, he and his dogs are engulfed in a tidal wave of water and ice. From the outset, August establishes the Arctic landscape, and the all-important, ever-present snow, as a powerful element in the drama.
After this truly dazzling curtain-raiser, the action moves to present-day Copenhagen, just before Christmas, and the discovery of the body of 6-year-old Greenlander Isaiah (Clipper Miano), who has apparently fallen from the roof of the apartment building where he lived with his drunken mother. The police shrug off the tragedy as an accident, but Smilla, who lives in the apartment and who had befriended the lonely Isaiah, is instantly suspicious: For one thing, the boy was afraid of heights, and for another, a quick look at his footprints in the snow proves to her, with her knowledge of and feeling for snow, that he was being chased when he fell.
This is enough to start Smilla on a one-woman investigation, occasionally helped by an enigmatic neighbor known as the Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), who also knew the sprig. After quizzing the doctor (Tom Wilkinson) who performed the autopsy, Smilla is more than ever certain that the lad was murdered. As she delves deeper into the mystery, she begins to suspect that the powerful Greenland Mining Co. and its chief exec, Tork (Richard Harris), are somehow involved, and that the apparently accidental death of the boy’s father in Greenland some time earlier is linked to his son’s fate.
During the first half, August establishes an uneasy, edgy atmosphere, helped considerably by the stylish editing of Janus Billeskov Jansen, who uses an unusual number of abrupt dissolves. Evidence given to the dogged Smilla by another doctor (Jim Broadbent) about a needle mark on the dead boy’s body, and by the former accountant for Greenland Mining, the deeply religious Miss Lubing (another scene-stealing cameo from Vanessa Redgrave), only increases the mystery. There is also the enigma surrounding the Mechanic, who is obviously attracted to Smilla and yet who might possibly be in league with the bad guys.
August directs these scenes with considerable skill and respect for the source material. For most of the film’s first hour, the metaphysical mystery is tantalizingly well-realized.
Unfortunately, the second half descends into sub-James Bond territory, with Smilla’s actions becoming increasingly physical and, at the same time, steadily less believable, with the plot hinging on crazed scientists, an unbelievable energy source and, of all things, prehistoric worms. By this time, not only has the narrative become less and less credible, but too many thriller-genre cliches have begun to pile up, like the blind sound expert who is decoding a crucial audiotape when he’s murdered. When the action shifts to Greenland, it loses all conviction.
Femme audiences in particular will no doubt root for the self-sufficient Smilla, though scenes in which she is regularly rude to her father’s mistress (Emma Croft) are not helpful. Ormond’s Smilla seems basically too elegant and composed to be the edgy loner of the novel (when told she has a rough mouth, she replies, “I try to be rough all over,” a line which is jarring coming from this actress).
On every technical level, “Smilla” is a fine achievement for the Scandinavian and German crew, especially cinematographer Jorgen Persson, whose widescreen, blue-tinged camerawork is a major contribution to the film’s texture and mood. Only the music score, by Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer, seems at times a bit predictable, with its repeated riffs designed to whip up artificial suspense.
On the whole, admirers of the novel should be pleased with August’s work here, but it’s doubtful that audiences will come out in truly significant numbers for what proves to be an intriguing but ultimately very tall story.