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20th Century Fox presents
Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997)

"No child in the world would play like that."
- Smilla Jaspersen (Julia Ormond)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: March 02, 2001

Stars: Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne
Other Stars: Robert Loggia, Richard Harris
Director: Bille August

Manufacturer: CMCA
MPAA Rating: R for language, some violence and a sex scene
Run Time: 02h:01m:07s
Release Date: March 13, 2001
UPC: 024543012214
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+BA- C

DVD Review

Smilla's Sense of Snow adapts Peter Heg's contemplative thriller to the big screen, starring Julia Ormond as Smilla Jaspersen, drawn into a mystery after a young boy living in her apartment building falls off the roof and dies. Her efforts to understand the death of her young friend Isaiah (Clipper Miano) lead her into a closer relationship with her downstairs neighbor (Gabriel Byrne), a man known only as The Mechanic, and together they uncover a secret mission conducted by the Greenland Mining Company.

Director Bille August approaches the material with an understanding of its literary origins. The plot is not the main attraction here—it's fairly standard-issue "corporate villainy" stuff, and the story twists are sometimes predictable. But Smilla's Sense of Snow benefits from rich characterizations, particularly a strong sense of Smilla. Her yearning for the wide-open frozen spaces of the Greenland of her youth is palpable, and her aimless existence in a Denmark apartment moving in its physical and emotional claustrophobia; her journey is internal as well as external, and Ormond's sensitive performance anchors the more conventional goings-on. Gabriel Byrne manages to communicate conflicting motives and emotions beneath his stoic "operative" exterior, and Robert Loggia (as Smilla's father), Richard Harris (as Greenland Mining's Dr. Tork), and Jim Broadbent and Tom Wilkinson (as Tork's colleagues) bring some complexity and humanity to otherwise simplistic roles.

Smilla's Sense of Snow was aimed at the art-house market in the US, but its production values match most big-budget Hollywood efforts. August's widescreen "scope" cinematography is particularly effective during the film's Greenland sequences, displaying wide, white vistas of ice and snow with subtlety and texture rarely seen on the big screen. Lighting changes dramatically to suit the tone of each scene, with airy backlighting in the apartment of the kind-hearted Elsa Lubing (Vanessa Redgrave) contrasted to the low-key, gridded lighting onboard a chartered ship. The production makes fine use of sound as well, with an active Dolby Digital 5.1 mix enhancing the emotions of every scene, and filling out locations from busy streets to arctic wastelands.

The contemplative pacing of Smilla's Sense of Snow won't be to everyone's taste, but it's a very well-executed effort, intelligently brought to the screen with fine performances and strong audiovisual appeal. Recommended.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Fox presents Smilla's Sense of Snow in its original 2.35:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. The anamorphic transfer has a slightly soft look to it, with a degree of "red push" and some noise on thin, bright edges, particularly during the opening credits. Detail is generally crisp, with naturalistic color, and the DVD image captures the gorgeous Greenland landscapes quite nicely; the transfer just isn't up to Fox's normal high standards.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Smilla's Sense of Snow features a Dolby Digital 5.1 track drawn from the theatrical audio mix, as well as Dolby 2.0 Surround English and French soundtracks. The 5.1 mix is highly active and enveloping, with directional, well-imaged sound effects and solid frequency range supporting the fine orchestral score by Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. There's some background noise and rustling throughout, but this seems intentional and adds significant texture to the audio. There's plenty of low-frequency content, with pulsing, ominous bass, atmospheric rumbling and deep percussion throughout; in fact, there's almost too much LFE in some scenes, as though the mix hasn't been adjusted for near-field listening. The 2.0 tracks are much "flatter" and center-oriented, clearly intended for simpler audio systems, and the French presentation is noticeably muddier than the English track, perhaps due to analog conversion somewhere along the way. The impressive 5.1 mix is definitely the way to go.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Titus, Grand Canyon, The Ice Storm, Inventing the Abbotts, Paradise Road
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:58m:53s

Extras Review: Fox's Smilla's Sense of Snow DVD features 32 picture-menu chapter stops and English and Spanish subtitles (there's a phantom, empty French subtitle track, which may throw off some player default settings). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer, and five trailers for other Fox Searchlight pictures (Titus, Grand Canyon, The Ice Storm, Inventing the Abbotts, and Paradise Road). All trailers are in anamorphic format with Dolby 2.0 audio, most in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the trailer for The Ice Storm in its native 1.85:1 format.

The only real "extra" is a brief video Featurette, shot on location in Greenland during the production. This six-minute piece includes brief interviews with director Bille August, several crew members, and stars Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, and Richard Harris, mostly concerning the extremely cold filming conditions. Not a terribly insightful feature, but at least it's not just promotional fluff.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Smilla's Sense of Snow is an intelligent thriller that depends on atmosphere as much as action. Fox's DVD features a presentable transfer, and the film stands up to repeat viewing. Recommended.


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