Wintry Skies, Loneliness, and a Little Boy’s Mysterious Death

How many words for “snow” do you know? In most languages, there is only one … or maybe a few, but not many different ones. But the Inuit language knows countless words for snow – different expressions based on its consistency, its aggregate state, on whether it’s old or freshly fallen, and much, much more. And snow is Smilla Jaspersen’s specialty; it’s what she studies and what she knows better than anybody and anything. So when her only friend, an Inuit boy living in the same Copenhagen apartment complex as her is found dead on the pavement in front of their house, she knows something must be amiss; he can’t have fallen off the roof, as the police quickly conclude: afraid of heights, he would not have climbed to the roof if not driven there in the first place, and he certainly wouldn’t have run to the edge … as his footsteps in the otherwise untouched snow cover on the roof, however, indicate.

Smilla, half Inuit herself and brought to Copenhagen against her will after her Inuit mother’s death, is a loner, a rebel against society, hiding her fears and loneliness under a thick coat of armor of unapproachability and trying to be “rough all over.” Unable and unwilling to ever lift that coat of armor, she takes refuge in science – her definition of longing are mathematics’s negative numbers, the “formalization of the feeling that you’re missing something.” – Yet, this movie’s Smilla is not the Smilla Jaspersen of Peter Høeg‘s novel which the movie seeks to adapt … although Julia Ormond’s performance is not exactly coated with sugar, she is a far cry from the book’s 37-year old woman who hates her Danish father for tearing her from her Greenlandic roots and open skies, and who hates the confines of the society in which he has made her grow up.

And as the story’s protagonist changes in the movie adaption, so does the story line itself – unfortunately, not for the better. Even accepting that it would have been impossible to translate all the novel’s subplots and subtleties onto the screen, what begins like a complex, introspective story about loneliness, the loss of home, and the unchecked power and ambition of a group of prestigious scientists, turns into your average thriller in the end – a huge let-down in an otherwise compelling movie.

Nevertheless, Ormond’s performance as Bille August’s Smilla (even if not Peter Høeg‘s) is strong; and so, in all its quietness, is Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Smilla’s neighbor, the would-be mechanic. Atmospherically, the movie wonderfully projects Smilla’s loneliness in the sad, gray skies and wet snow of wintry Copenhagen, as opposed to the crisp blue skies, white ice fields and limitless horizons of Greenland. For these reasons alone, the movie is well worth watching; even if those of us who have read the novel will have to leave aside a good portion of its contents to be able to appreciate the movie on its own merits.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Constantin Film / 20th Century Fox (1997)
  • Director: Bille August
  • Producers: Bernd Eichinger & Martin Moszkowicz
  • Screenplay: Ann Biderman
  • Based on a novel by: Peter Høeg
  • Music: Harry Gregson-Williams & Hans Zimmer
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Jörgen Persson
  • Julia Ormond: Smilla Jasperson
  • Gabriel Byrne: The Mechanic
  • Jim Broadbent: Dr. Lagermann
  • Tom Wilkinson: Prof. Loyen
  • Richard Harris: Dr. Andreas Tork
  • Robert Loggia: Moritz Jasperson
  • Vanessa Redgrave: Elsa Lübing
  • Bob Peck: Ravn
  • Mario Adorf: Capt. Sigmund Lukas
  • Jürgen Vogel: Nils Jakkelsen
  • Peter Capaldi: Birgo Lander
  • Emma Croft: Benja
  • Agga Olsen: Juliane Christiansen
  • Clipper Miano: Isaiah Christiansen



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