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A few years ago the Nordic Noir took the world by storm and Jo Nesbø’s “Harry Hole” series of crime novels became a hit internationally. Now the series has an English-language adaptation that had a lot of promise because of its all-star cast and talent behind the camera.
Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is a celebrated yet hard-drinking, heavy smoking police detective and often finds himself walking up on snowy streets of Oslo. He longs to work on a murder case and his chance comes when he meets young detective Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) who’s investigating a missing person inquiry. Both believe the case is linked to a murder case in the Norwegian city of Bergen nine years earlier and the body count starts to build up in and around the Oslo area.
The problem with many adaptations of crime and mystery novels, especially in the UK, is that they are so prevalent that it is hard for a lot of properties to stand out. Police procedurals are a regular fixture on TV in the UK and novels are incredibly common, so British audiences have seen many different murder plots and The Snowman does little new for the genre with its standard plot.
The Snowman‘s story seems like it came from the big book of police procedurals clichés. Like many detectives Hole’s personal life is a mess – besides his vices he has an unusual relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rikel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her son from a previous relationship, Oleg (Michael Yates). There is a number of red herrings thrown at the audience which they cannot care about because they are kept to the sidelines like Val Kilmer and J.K. Simmons’ characters. A novel has the advantage of giving readers background details: a film cannot without it coming off as expository – yet the film adaptation could have done more to give the audience a reason why they should be invested.
Kilmer and Simmons’ character were in subplots involving the events in Bergen and the political arena where Oslo is hosting to bid a sporting event. These subplots were perfunctory to the plot and this boils down to poor screenwriting and editing because there was little reason to be invested. The idea involving some sort of political conspiracy seems to be The Snowman’s attempt to abide by the tropes of the Nordic Noir subgenre: but compared to other examples like The Millennium Trilogy, The Killing and even Nesbø’s own Headhunters the political element played an important part of the plot.
To highlight how unfocused the nature of the film is there are many scenes in the trailer which were not in the film. The big offenders were when Hole says the killer cuts up victims like a child and saying the killer is taunting them. There is little psychological profiling of the killer in The Snowman and the taunting aspects of the plot were ditched after the killer pre-emptively reports one of his murders.
The film also dropped themes during the film. There were hints that Hole is a bit of a technophobe, or at least not accustomed with modern technology because his fellow detectives use new tablets (which look like the production design came from the ’90s) and he was shocked when a doctor was able to arrange a drugs prescription on his smartphone. When speaking to NRK (Norway’s public broadcaster) director Tomas Alfredson said that because of the tight shooting schedule that 10 to 15% of the script wasn’t filmed and it showed.
There are many points in The Snowman that made it look like it was trying to be like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Aside from the obvious that both films are set in Scandinavia the killers in both films having similar motivations and have a wider conspiracy involving murders conducted in the past and having connections to powerful figures in their respective nations. Also, the lead characters in both stories have troubled relationships with their teenage offspring.
The film even had some shocking attempts of ADR work. The worst example was involving a young boy during the film’s prologue because the voice did not match the character.
The Snowman does have a terrific cast which is one of the film’s saving graces. Fassbender is obviously a talented actor and many of his performances have been praised. He has no problem playing the famous detective as a man who is self-destructive and looking for a purpose. Hole needs to solve a case because he doesn’t have anything else in his life. As the film progresses Fassbender’s Hole exhibits more self-control and despite his problems he’s an instinctive detective.
Ferguson and Gainsbourg are also fine in their roles as women in Hole’s life. Ferguson is an emerging star as a young detective with promise and Gainsbourg gives The Snowman some extra gravitas because of her work in indie and art-house films. Yet other cast members were not so lucky because they were given thankless roles. Toby Jones suffered the most from this because he played a detective that investigated the murder in Bergen and had less than five minutes of screentime. It was hardly worth traveling to Norway.
Kilmer gave the worst performance in the film because he spoke through his teeth believing that was enough to make him sound like an alcoholic. What it really did was it just makes it hard to understand what he’s saying.
Despite it televisual story, Alfredson and his cinematographer Dion Beebe make The Snowman look cinematic. There is some beautiful photography of the snow-covered mountains. But even this works against The Snowman because these scenes reminded one more of a superior murder mystery: Wind River.
Alfredson also knows how to ratchet up the tension when required, probably as a response to criticisms that his previous film, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was slow and boring. These moments are most impactful when the killer knows his victims and prepares his cutting gear. There was also a solid fight scene that was shot in one take – putting many action films to shame.
The Snowman did not live up to its potential it had and its production troubles were clearly on screen. For a police procedural it performs the cardinal sins of having a murder mystery that isn’t interesting and having an unoriginal personal drama. If there is any continuation of the “Harry Hole” series then a multi-national TV production would have to be the way to go – like the BBC’s version of Wallander or NRK/Netflix’s Lilyhammer.