Chilling, not thrilling
Forget Aled Jones singing Walking In The Air, The Snowman is a grisly and tortuously tangled Nordic noir that will leave you cold
ALED JONES trilling Walking In The Air will be a long way from your mind when you sit down to watch The Snowman, which resembles its charming animated namesake in no way at all.
Tomas Alfredson’s film is more Raymond Chandler than Raymond Briggs, but even that is to undersell its sheer nastiness, as a serial killer in wintry Norway goes about his business with a macabre relish for scattering body parts.
Each time he strikes, with women who are mothers or pregnant his particular speciality, he leaves a snowman as his calling card.
A blizzard of expectation has greeted The Snowman, which is based on Jo Nesbo’s bestselling crime novel and stars Michael Fassbender as Nesbo’s flawed hero, Oslo detective Harry Hole.
Alfredson made a fine job of adapting John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) for the big screen; he knows how to infuse a challenging plot with mood and style. But The Snowman, cowritten by Hossein Amini (Our Kind Of Traitor) and Peter Straughan (who worked on Tinker, Tailor), doesn’t quite measure up to all that lofty anticipation.
Part of the problem is that so-called Nordic noir has become such a fixture these past few years on television, where it is well-served by an episodic structure unfolding over several weeks. Here, expecting more of the same, we find ourselves with a whole lot of story to cram into two hours and five minutes.
That leaves very little room for developing Harry’s hard-drinking, melancholic character, so central to the novels. He could be any old maverick detective, frankly, in any old formulaic thriller.
Alfredson tries hard — at times too hard — to make his film distinctive. It’s both extremely gruesome, and, in its use of the Norwegian landscape, rather beautiful. And it has an undeniably classy cast.
Alongside Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, J. K. Simmons, Val Kilmer, Chloe Sevigny, an under-used Toby Jones and an even more under-used Anne Reid all do their best to straighten out the convoluted story. Mind you, just when you think you know what’s going on and who has done what to whom, Alfredson dangles yet another red herring.
Being Swedish, he probably souses them, too. There is a largely indigestible smorgasbord of the wretched things. I can tell you, however, that a
disturbing pre-credits scene should not be missed. It both sets the tone for what is to come, and helps to make some kind of sense of the eventual denouement.
A middle-aged man arrives at a remote house in the Norwegian boondocks, and there subjects a boy to a history test, walloping the child’s mother every time he gets an answer wrong.
This deeply nasty scene has tragic consequences, but then we skip forward in time to find Harry coming round from a drunken stupor. Fassbender sports a pair of mildly red-rimmed eyes to show us he is playing a chain-smoking drunk, though he has omitted to go the full De Niro or DayLewis and get flabby.
As hopeless inebriates with disastrous personal lives go, Harry is the best-looking, most tautly-muscled example of the species that you will ever see.
He is also, of course, Oslo police department’s most brilliant sleuth, even though his boss despairs of him as all bosses of all maverick detectives always do.
‘I need a case to work on,’ he tells his boss.
‘I apologise for Oslo’s low murder rate,’ comes the reply.
But that’s the cue for all hell to break loose, as one woman after another goes missing, to be found chopped into pieces.
Since the beginning of the film, Oslo’s murder rate has gone through the roof, and that’s not counting a couple of suspicious and very grisly suicides.
NOMINALLY in charge of the case is a newcomer to the Oslo force, Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), though she, it turns out, also has other fish to fry — and not all of them red herrings.
Will Harry find romance with her, or rekindle it with his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Gainsbourg)? The chances of the latter seem remote because there’s a new fella in Rakel’s life
By now, Alfredson is audibly cranking up the tension. When Harry follows a trail of clues up to Borgen, even his train arrives at the station buffers in ominous fashion, with a plaintive cello accompaniment. Meanwhile, back in Oslo, there’s great excitement over a bid for the Winter World Cup, led by a creepy tycoon played by J. K. Simmons.
Add to all this a series of flashbacks to yet another maverick detective (Kilmer) with yet another despairing boss (Jones) and you can understand why The Snowman is so hard to follow.
It looks great, but only as a triumph of style over substance. I’m sorry to say it left me cold.
Icy stare: Michael Fassbender as detective Harry Hole, and, inset, Rebecca Ferguson