With the success of Legends of the Fall (1994), Julia Ormond briefly dabbled with the Hollywood A-list, appearing in big budget studio productions like First Knight (1995) and an ill-conceived remake of Sabrina (1995). While the former was a commercial hit, the latter was not and to be fair, both projects felt like an ill-fit for the talented English actress. Ormond parlayed whatever clout she had left and starred in Smilla’sSense of Snow (1997), an adaptation of the best-selling Danish novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by PeterHoeg. Despite the pedigree of acclaimed director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) and a cast featuring the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Richard Harris, the film was a commercial failure and received mixed reviews. August seemed interested in making an artistic film as opposed to a standard thriller while some fans of the book felt that Ormond was miscast as the titular character. Now that some time has passed since the film’s release and there is some distance from the source material, it can be judged on its own merits.
August immediately establishes a sense of place during the opening credits that play over shots of the massive glaciers and snow-swept ice flows of Greenland. It is a cold, desolate landscape that will feature prominently later on in the film and is also the homeland of the protagonist. Smilla Jasperson (Julia Ormond) returns home from work one day to find that a little Inuit boy named Isaiah Christiansen (Clipper Miano) from her apartment building that she was friends with has fallen to his death. The authorities tell her that he was playing on the roof and simply fell off but that doesn’t jibe with what she knows of the boy. Smilla goes up to the roof and notices that his tracks in the snow go in a straight line towards the edge of the building. She is convinced that he was murdered and with a mysterious man (Gabriel Byrne), who lives in her building, that found the boy’s body, she digs deeper and uncovers a bigger conspiracy at work involving Greenland Mining and its CEO Dr. Andreas Tork (Richard Harris).
Through a series of flashbacks we see how Smilla and Isaiah became friends. They both came from Greenland and moved to Copenhagen, Demark at an early age. His mother doesn’t take proper care of him and Smilla lets him stay over, cleans him up and spends time with the boy, like taking him to the zoo. She was more of a mother to the boy then his own biological parent. These scenes quickly get us to empathize with Smilla and Isaiah while also providing strong motivation for her private investigation into his death. Their scenes together are heartbreaking and touching as we watch them with the knowledge that he is now dead. Smilla even has her moments of levity, like the scenes where she trades smartass insults with her father’s young, stuck-up trophy wife (Emma Croft).
Julia Ormond instills Smilla with an intelligence and dogged determination to solve the mystery of Isaiah that is refreshing to see. Smilla has an inquisitive nature and is methodical in her approach, which, coupled with the actress’ beauty, makes for a very attractive and engaging character. Smilla isn’t some kind of passive wallflower. She’s extremely proactive and even a bit on the abrasive side when someone rubs her the wrong way. She says exactly what she means and how she feels. It is this kind of directness in a female protagonist that is something different from what we are used to seeing in mainstream Hollywood films. However, the scenes with the lsaiah do a nice job of showing her caring, nurturing side so that she is more than a one-note character. Thanks to Ormond’s thoughtful performance, we are immediately on Smilla’s side and want to see her solve this mystery.
Cast against type, Gabriel Byrne plays an introverted man with a slight stutter. He has nice chemistry with Ormond, which makes watching their relationship develop over the course of the film a pleasant experience. Initially, Smilla is suspicious of the man and keeps him at arm’s length as one feels she does with most people she meets but they bond over their mutual friendship with Isaiah. He is a bit of an enigma and Smilla is never sure if she can completely trust him. Byrne plays it close to the vest, never revealing too much and he delivers a sensitive performance but with his trademark intensity.
Director Bille August read the first 30 pages of Peter Hoeg’s novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and was so taken with the title character that he felt it would make a “tremendous film.” As fate would have it, Hoeg’s publisher approached August with the suggestion he direct it. The author was thrilled that his Danish novel would be made into a film by a fellow countryman. The two met briefly and discovered that they shared the same view of the story and how to depict it on film. They talked about three specific things. According to Hoeg: firstly, “the film would have to respect the book’s subtly shifting view of Greenlanders, second, “the film would have to respect the feminine outlook of the central character,” and finally “that a literal cinematic translation of the book was of no interest.”
In order to make the film version accessible to a mainstream audience, the filmmakers brought in an American screenwriter who came to Denmark and met with August and Hoeg. They went over every aspect of the story in great detail. Once they agreed on what would for the core of the film, August and the screenwriter worked on the screenplay. According to the director, the first draft was “awful, an absolute disaster.” The main stumbling block was producing a “credible image” of Smilla, who was a complex character in the novel, and conveying her thoughts. The filmmakers started over.
Screenwriter Ann Biderman first met August in 1992 and found that they shared a mutual admiration for each other’s work. He asked her to adapt Hoeg’s book but she couldn’t figure out a way to do it. She pitched her ideas anyway and didn’t get the job. She went on to write for the popular television cop show NYPD Blue in 1993. In April of that year, Biderman’s agent told her that the film’s producers did not like the first draft of a script done by someone else and would she be willing to work on it? She agreed and started in May. Biderman did a tremendous amount of research on Denmark and Greenland, spending a year writing the first draft. August liked what she wrote but felt it needed a “fresh take” and told her they were going with another writer. She went on to other projects and eventually received call from August. The director told her that he did not like what the other writer had done and wanted her back on the project. She agreed but under two conditions: that August and her would meet to focus completely on the film and that her previous draft would be the template.
To prepare for her role in the film, Julia Ormond went to Greenland and Demark with August where he showed her specific locations that were going to be used. While in Greenland, they talked to Inuit and Danish people living there, went on dog sled rides and visited local children’s homes and schools. She also took several photographs of places and people in order to get a sense of what life was like there. She also worked closely with the costume designer to find outfits that would showcase the hybrid of Smilla’s Danish and Greelandic sides of her. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gabriel Byrne was not crazy about doing research for his role as he believed that “every role an actor plays is basically playing himself.” He had read the novel and loved it when it first came out but his only preparation was to study the script. The actor had no problem replicating the stutter of his character as he used to stutter as a child.
Principal photography began on March 4, 1996 on location in Copenhagen. The first week’s filming had to be scrapped because August and Ormond struggled to convey Smilla’s “clear-sightedness and her skeptical view of the world in which we live, without making her seem arrogant and superficial,” the director said in an interview. Ormond remembers, “It was an isolating experience. Bille didn't like it when I smiled on screen, and I agreed with him—Smilla's more inscrutable than that. But it makes you depressed. I had to shut down something inside me to play her that way.” So, they toned down her abrasiveness. The actress showed an incredible commitment to the project, even doing her own stunts, which included the scene where Smilla escapes from a sinking ship on fire.
The production moved on to Greenland where cast and crew were at the mercy of extremely cold conditions, which meant that reels of film had to be wrapped in warm blankets in order to keep it from cracking in the camera. After filming finished there, the production went to Sweden where the climactic showdown in the ice cave was done. Instead of trying to build one on a soundstage, the producers found a hotel in the northern part of the country that was built and carved entirely out of ice. They utilized skilled craftsmen who built the hotel to work on the cave.
Smilla’s Sense of Snow received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and liked it despite the weak ending: “The ending simply doesn't matter. The movie presents it, but isn't implicated in it. The movie is off somewhere else … In our world movies need a plot, I guess, and so this one has one. Ignore it. It's irrelevant to the movie's power.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin praised Ormond’s performance: “The film has an elegant Smilla in Julia Ormond, whose remoteness works better here than it has in other roles. Ms. Ormond plays Smilla in the chic, alert, unsmiling fashion of a French film star, and she richly rewards the camera's many beautiful close-ups of Smilla cogitating on crime.”
However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But on the screen, with a somnambulant Julia Ormond moping in the lead and a morose Gabriel Byrne as the mechanic working from an elliptical script by Ann Biderman (Primal Fear), there's nothing but Bondishness; nearly all sense of personality has been stripped, leaving only striking panoramas of ice, and plenty of it, to suggest desolation, longing, fear, despair — all the human bits that make obsessions interesting.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, "Though enlivened by occasional touches, Smilla's is like the food at Taco Bell: exotic only to someone who hasn't experienced the real thing.” Jonathan Rosenbaum found the film to be “a watchable conspiracy thriller, but, as with most conspiracy thrillers, the first half is a lot more watchable than the second: the more one discovers, the less interested one becomes.”
August elevates what could have been merely a serviceable, by-the-numbers thriller into something that is virtually non-existent nowadays – a smart, thought-provoking film for adults with an intelligent protagonist determined to avenge a loved one at the risk of her own safety. Smilla’s Sense of Snow does lose its way a bit in the last third where Smilla makes a jarring transition from investigator to full-blown adventurer but the rest of the film is so strong, so assured in its direction, acting and writing that I was able to overlook the implausible nature of its conclusion.
August’s direction is a little on the clinical side, as if mirroring the cold environments of Copenhagen and Greenland during Christmastime when the story is set. It is Ormond’s performance that provides the film’s warmth and heart as Smilla’s love for Isaiah fuels everything she does. It is hard not to get caught up in her investigation, especially when the stakes are raised and her own life becomes increasingly in danger. Smilla’s Sense of Snow was miles apart from the soap opera theatrics of Legends of the Fall or the misguided remake of Sabrina. Ormond finally found a role tailored to her intelligence, playing a fiercely independent character. Sadly, despite being based on a best-selling novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow did not connect with a mainstream audience and was a commercial failure, which may have hurt her career. She has yet to headline another high-profile film but has taken supporting roles in significant films by the likes of David Lynch (Inland Empire), David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Steven Soderbergh (Che). Bille August’s film is one that deserves to be rediscovered and re-evaluated as an under-appreciated thriller that works despite its third act problems.