" It’s been 84 years and I can still smell the fresh paint "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery


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Smilla’s Sense of Snow feels like it was written chronologically. That is to say that it feels like the author (or screenwriter) didn’t really have an ending in mind, but plowed ahead anyway with the story.

It is a story about a death, probably a murder. Smilla (Julia Ormond) comes home to her flat in Copenhagen and sees a crowd outside. A Greenlandic child has fallen from the roof and died. Smilla recognizes the child, Isaiah (Clipper Miano), and goes to the roof try to understand the tragedy. She senses from the footprints left in the snow that he was chased off the roof; he didn’t just fall.

The child’s relationship to Smilla is gradually revealed through flashback. We see that Isaiah’s mother is often drunk and that Smilla, half Greenlandic herself, has been like another mother to him. Because of this close bond, and because of a Greenlandic belief that murder is an insult to the soul, Smilla embarks on a crusade to uncover the truth.

She is surprised to see that she is thwarted at every turn. Nobody will talk to her. The best she can get are vague pieces of some great puzzle. Soon shadowy figures are trying to stop her or kill her. The mystery grows from “who killed Isaiah” to “what is everybody hiding.”

I haven’t read the book, but I suspect it was better than the movie. Many of the devices used in mystery books just don’t translate well to the screen. For example, our hero has time to solve murders. She gets some money from her father, and we vaguely know about her “work”, but we don’t know how she lives. How does she pay for her apartment or her computer?

The movie also relied on too many coincidences. In a book, one could say that an important sign was revealed in a photo. We could praise our hero for her great detective work. In a movie, such a sign has to be big enough for the audience to see, and in this movie, the photo comes across as a comically obvious hint and not clever, observant detective work.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want the “surprise” blown. Finally, the answer to Smilla’s great mystery is revealed to be a fantastic object from the beginning of time. In a book, such things are much more believable. Engrossed in the story and encouraged by subtle hints, we tend to give internal reality to the author’s words; we fill in the gaps with our imaginations and with the tone of the book. However, in a movie, there can be no gaps. An alternate reality must be created as visually complete as possible in order to convince us that it is real. In Smilla, the movie’s mystical keystone is a big wet rock and a pool of water. In a book, our imaginations would tell us it’s much more, but visually, it’s a big let-down.

But this movie isn’t bad just because of a poor translation from page to screen. The story sets up expectations that it cannot meet. There is an overwhelming sense of coverup and conspiracy. All of the characters Smilla questions either lie to her, give evasive answers, or refuse to talk. Whatever Smilla doesn’t know is such a huge amazing conspiracy that nobody dares speak of it to an outsider. The story sets up the secret to be so incredibly amazing that nothing could possibly be shocking enough to live up to all the hype. Naturally, this turns out to be the case (see the previous paragraph).

There were a few bright spots in the movie. The shots of the ice floes of Greenland and of the ice-breaking ship are neat (even though some of “Greenland” appears to be computer generated).

Also, Clipper Miano gave a good performance as Isaiah. It was a small role, but a bad child actor could have spoiled the mood of the movie. The part could have easily been overplayed, but Miano was quiet, reserved, and observant.

I also liked Ormond’s character in spite of some small inconsistencies. Smilla is a very good female role. She is genuinely strong and smart (compared to fellow “scientist” Emma from The Saint). She has her own desires. She’s not interested in being someone’s “better half.” She is her own person.

She describes herself as “rough” and “heartbroken”. She is both. When The Mechanic (Gabriel Byrne), a neighbor who may be part of the conspiracy, approaches her, she interprets his interest as overtures to sex, and she rebuffs him. She doesn’t mind being friends with The Mechanic, but she knows a pass when she sees it and she is just not interested; she has other things on her mind.

Later on, she actually complies with The Mechanic’s request for a kiss, and I find this to be an inconsistency with her character. On the other hand, it could be the actors’ faults for not generating any chemistry on screen.

But in spite of its good points, on the whole, I’d rather have read the book. It feels like something got lost in the translation.