Peter Hoeg's 1992 bestselling novel was always going to be difficult to film. It is a tale of a woman, Smilla Jaspersen, a scientist of Inuit and American heritage, now living in Copenhagen. A woman more comfortable with mathematics and her peculiar understanding of the patterns of snow, the only person she feels any love for is a six-year-old boy who lives next door with his alcoholic Inuit mother. When he mysteriously dies, Smilla discovers his death was part of a huge conspiracy involving a mining company, a strange virus and explorations in Greenland.
On one level, this is a mystery story about Smilla's search for the truth about the boy's death. On a deeper level, it is much more complex, dealing with Smilla's memories of her mother and life in Greenland, and her feeling of alienation. This is why the film fails. A dense, surreal, beautifully written novel has been stripped down to a straight mystery story. Smilla's inner life is translated by Julia Ormond into a wooden stillness, and out of a cast of thoroughbreds, only Gabriel Byrne gives a creditable performance.
The vast Arctic wastes are stunning, but the film is all mouth and no trousers. Having struggled with portraying the inner turmoil, the script finally throws in the towel and turns into a pseudo-Bond movie as Smilla follows the trail to its end and a confrontation with the evil perpetrator and his henchmen. After the disastrous The House Of The Spirits, Bille August should know from experience to leave good novels well alone.