Snow Falling on Cedars is based on David Gutersonís best-selling novel of the same name. The book has extraordinary depth. Multiple characters from varying cultural backgrounds tell different stories, or just contribute their piece to the background murder puzzle. Both book and film are ostensibly set during a criminal trial in a remote American fishing village, cut off from the rest of the world by a snow blizzard. But the story drifts in and out of the past and present, and is partly set in a
US-Japanese internment camp during World War II.Director Scott Hicks spent a long time following up the international success of Shine. He reworked Ron Bassí conventional, chronological screenplay, and let the bookís dreamlike flashbacks dictate the structure of the film. The book doesnít have a main villain or hero - the key characters are generally as mixed-up as eachother, and what humour there is comes through the characterisations. To give the film a more standard Hollywood focus, Hicks concentrates on the young journalist Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) and his unrequited crush on childhood sweetheart Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), wife of the Japanese-American man accused of murder.
The film covers virtually all the bookís events in carefully planned and beautifully composed scenes. These scenes are so short, so completely perfect, that you donít get a chance to feel anything. The short scenes also mean the talented cast (which also includes Rick Yune, Sam Shepard, James Cromwell) have little time to make an impression - itís a relief when Max von Sydow wrestles control for a moment to allow his defence lawyer time to make a memorable closing address. Without characterisation, thereís also little or no humour. And a film without humour is usually taking itself too seriously.The murder mystery unfolds clearly on screen, but the ending has been slightly embellished by Bass and Hicks, and the final moments are over-written and sentimental. A haunting score (James Newton Howard) draws some of the short, choppy scenes together. Although Hicks and Bass have done a good job pinning down the events in the book, they havenít allowed us into the minds of the characters, so itís hard to relate to what they feel. The result: a lot to admire (especially Robert Richardsonís exquisite wintry cinematography), but little to involve you.