“Snow Falling on Cedars” is an impeccably crafted but dramatically dull adaptation of David Guterson’s international bestseller. Draped in the heavy, moist atmosphere of its Pacific Northwest location, circa 1950, and haunted by a naturalistic quietude bespeaking deep secrets, Scott Hicks’ Hollywood follow-up to his 1996 debut, “Shine,” becomes tediously digressive in its second half and hits nothing but extremely familiar notes concerning its dominant themes of prejudice, racial inequity, lost love and self-doubt. Book’s fan base and strong reviews from some mainstream critics may be enough to give this a good launch commercially, but lack of marquee names and pic’s somber, lugubrious, self-important nature forecast a limited B.O. life upon Christmas release.
Fancily structured film mixes the melodrama of a murder trial with flashback slices of poignant romantic memory and angst, as small-town newspaperman Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is slowly revealed to be far from an impartial observer of the courtroom drama. Intent of the yarn is to reveal the full sociopolitical fabric of a very American yet ethnically mixed community during the now-idealized post-World War II period, but the script by Hicks and Ron Bass follows a yawningly predictable course in the area of social observations, and the handling is so precious and restrained as to sink the film from lack of momentum.
Darkly impressionistic opening depicts a nighttime boating incident in which a local fisherman is found dead in the wintry waters off San Piedro Island in Washington. There is little hard evidence, but Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), a handsome young Japanese-American and a childhood friend of the deceased, Carl Heine Jr. (Eric Thal), is charged with murder. The arrest and ensuing trial, which starts on the ninth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, revive painful memories that have barely begun to heal regarding the treatment of the island’s long-established Japanese-American community.
The trial, in which hard-driving prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn) is pitted against elderly Old World defense counsel Nels Gudmundsson (Max von Sydow) under the sternly evenhanded Judge Fielding (James Cromwell), serves as a springboard for innumerable flashbacks. The most vibrant of these recount the illicit teenage love affair between Kazuo’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), and Ishmael Chambers, the sensitive son of Arthur Chambers (Sam Shepard), editor of the local paper. Appealingly played as kids by Anne Suzuki and Reeve Carney, Kazuo and Ishmael take to meeting in a secluded grove of cedar trees, and while the former is typically warned by her traditional mother, “Stay away from white boys — marry one of your own kind,” the couple gradually progress from special friendship to forbidden passion.
At the same time, pic sketches in the pre-war social order of the island, where the Japanese lived in relative harmony with the mostly German and Scandinavian white families. But a possible motive for the central murder is established by tracing Kazuo’s lingering anger over a betrayal by Heine’s mother, who used the wartime internment of Japanese as an excuse to terminate his family’s purchase of some farm land.
These fundamental details leading up to forced departure of the Japanese to Manzanar are enumerated with fastidious dispatch through the film’s first hour, during which one can take deep satisfaction in the extraordinary images Hicks and cinematographer Robert Richardson are putting on the screen. Composed and lit with an uncommon exactitude, the widescreen visuals possess a burnished density, and gain further distinction from being strategically drained of much of their color in the interest of monochromatic splendor; it’s a modern, much more advanced version of the sort of color scheme John Huston and lenser Oswald Morris experimented with on “Moby Dick” more than four decades ago.
Despite the subsequent augmentation of atmospherics via a snowstorm and a power outage that requires the trial to proceed by candlelight, pic slips into a ditch in the second half. Hicks dawdles on the ugly resolution and fallout of the Hatsue-Ishmael romance in the past, and on Ishmael’s boring hesitation to step forward with information pertinent to the trial due to his unresolved bitterness over Hatsue. All the back-and-forthing becomes wearying, and as the trial chugs toward a climax one wants to stick with it rather than continually being jerked back into the past. Ending trades in pat notions about developing the maturity to accept certain things as they are and move on.
Acting is mostly of the solidly earnest stripe, but the inner lives of the characters are seldom illuminated. Hawke once again proves to be a listless, stolid leading man, with little energy and nothing going on behind his eyes. Kudoh is rather more engaging as the conflicted Hatsue, while pros such as Cromwell, Rebhorn and Richard Jenkins, as an ineffectual local cop, deliver their expected good work. By far the most delightful member of the cast is von Sydow, who now looks like a beautifully aged carved statue and has a great time providing intelligent and wryly hammy nuances to his characterization.
James Newton Howard’s churning score goes overboard into emotional excess at times. But along with Richardson’s spectacular work, other artistic contributions, notably Jeannine Oppewall’s production design and Renee Erlich Kalfus’ costume design, are of the highest order and bolster the intense and perhaps deliberately overbearing sense of time and place. Bainbridge Island, B.C., locations are spectacularly evocative.