Snow Cake

Snow Cake


Reviewed by: Chris

Snow Cake is a tale of insulated lives thrown into contact, of insights that that are almost (but not quite) incommunicable, of the power of unusual friendships, of people defying what is expected of them and sometimes of what they would expect of themselves, and of finding a strength in themselves and others as a result. And if that sounds clichéd, you have to go and see it to believe it.

In Snow Cake, Sigourney Weaver is from a different world, one not unlike our own. She's not battling Aliens or living in a sectarian time-shift Village, but the world into which she brings us is as weird, and dazzling enough for my jaw to drop after watching her for just a few minutes. Her presence jumps off the screen with such vividness that, even though I had read the storyline, I knew it was going to surpass my expectations. Her character is fascinated by things that sparkle, can juggle numbers with unnerving rapidity, inhabits a universe of extreme precision that brooks no infraction, and no uncleanliness: and she's only barely tolerant of your world. Fortunately (or unfortunately) she comes armed with no weapons, and if you meet her in the street you would most likely find reasons to downgrade her in your own mind to 'handicapped' - which neatly saves you the trouble of trying to understand a world you cannot inhabit. This is the world of Linda Freeman, high-functioning autistic.

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There are two sides to Linda: the world she lives in is undoubtedly remarkable - her version of Scrabble leaves Alan Rickman's character (Alex Hughes) looking severely unevolved - but it is balanced by her lack of empathy for 'normal' people. What makes Weaver's performance so remarkable is that she conveys the logical certitude of Linda's position with such force that we, like Alex, start feeling a bit dumb.

Why do we go through such irrelevant tea-and-ham-sandwiches rituals after a death? Why can't we feel the joy we felt as children when we discovered snow in our hands, or the thrill of a trampoline as our body is launched into space? Why do we struggle to remember simple facts? The drawbacks of Linda's world (apart from most people not being able to reach it) is that she cannot cope with the imperfections that the rest of us would shrug off. If the dog leaves a stain on her carpet she will have simply have to 'move house', and the only kind of job she can get is one where her obsessive need for order can find a simplistic outlet (she stacks shelves in a supermarket, with mathematical precision and attention).

If Rain Man was the gold-medallist of autism, Linda Freeman is simply a non-glamorised regular sportswoman, and in that she conveys a more real person than any Hollywood-ised super-character. It is almost as if she has been transported from Zen-like meditation in a distant cave of enlightenment yet cannot cope with the grime of ordinary existence; but in a way, Snow Cake is not about autism: it is about communication across a chasm where it would seem little communication is possible, it's about learning to open up to another person, and it's about letting down the barriers of convention.

Alex (Alan Rickman) opens the film, flicking poignantly at a small photo as he sits out a long flight. We have no clue as to who the person in the picture is, or why he seems to be encased in his own intense thoughts. Later, we see him in a transport café, approached by a bubbly young girl who is determined to break down his wall of silence. She wants to write a book and make loads of money - by finding the right areas of pain and suffering to focus on. Her apparent insensitivity is quickly tempered when she admits she admits she needs a lift but has picked the loneliest looking person because she really thinks he "needs to talk". Alex reluctantly gives her a lift. She is soon singing the 70s rock song All Right Now at the top of her voice, but things are far from all right. One car crash and an added truckload of emotional baggage later, Alex is arriving on Linda's doorstep and destined to be her guest for more than a few hours.

Our storyline is further complicated by the seductively attractive Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss, Trinity in The Matrix) who has her eye on Alex. He first assumes she is a prostitute (she reminded me of the classy call-girl Inara, from Serenity) but accepts a 'neighbourly' invitation for dinner.

Rickman is at his best. The wry tongue-in-cheek humour seen in many of his films gives way to a sardonic realism that is even funnier because it is more true to real life. His character is a continuous spectrum encompassing grudging tolerance of other people, dry and caustic humour, sexual needs not immediately apparent behind what people call his 'creepy' look, and genuine affection and warmth that he is only slowly able to reveal. As he is drawn into a relationship, his outer icy shield starts to thaw and we start to look up to him, no matter what his (as yet not fully revealed) dark sins in the past might be. A very down to earth script ensures the laughs are grounded (Love Actually but without the unbelievability), even if in most cases Rickman is principally a foil for other characters: such as when Linda likens eating snow to an orgasm or Maggie breaks off dinner because she hates having sex on a full stomach.

After the sterility of the Matrix characters, it's good to see Carrie-Ann Moss in a role where she can spread some emotional wings. Living in the small town of Wawa Ontario, where everybody knows if you as much as cough, Maggie needs a lot of self-confidence to be a single woman with a sex life. She sees qualities in Alex that put him ahead of a physically more becoming rookie cop, and he in turn is the key for her to make a meaningful connection with Linda, by whom she has been spurned.

Marc Evans (My Little Eye) might seem a strange choice to direct, but he does so with a sureness that never slips, taking advantage of a talented cast of the highest order, scintillating dialogue and cinematography that makes every scene a delight to watch. When Linda (Weaver) first appears, she is distorted behind the glass of the front door. Alex enters with no knowledge of her autism. Linda is weird, but she also sparkles like the visual objects she hoards with such enthusiasm. At one point, she pushes her hand through the thick pile of a rug and we can almost feel the luxuriousness between her fingers.

The snow, where featured, is beautiful, but never so much so that it obscures the symbol of icy emotions that can thaw, of its myriad varieties (Linda, naturally, knows the exact number), or the joy it can bring that we generally think of as only childlike. In a romantic scene of rare beauty, a lakeside sunset reminds us of the warmth that turns snow to water. Later, when we see Alex's eponymous gift to Linda, we are struck by the skill with which he has communicated to her in her own terms, and we go away hoping we will never be like the 'friend' who disparagingly pigeon-holes Linda with, "I know all about autism - I've seen that film."

Snow Cake is careful never to suggest Linda is a typical autistic or that there is any such thing as 'typical'. She is all the more enlightening by being relatively approachable and 'ordinary' and, perhaps as she has a high-functioning autism, her world is ever so slightly less removed and so easier to understand (or maybe even learn from). We soon realise that Linda's childlike behaviour thinly disguises a penetrating intelligence, but her intelligence doesn't enable her to solve everyday problems such as putting the rubbish out. She has emotional insight, even consideration, but no empathy. Her world is as isolated from ours as ours is from hers, even with her ability to reel off facts and figures. One is reminded of a recent study that suggested that emotional intelligence may serve people better in the workplace than a Mensa certificate.

Rickman's character struggles with Canadian distances in a typically British manner. "It didn't look far on the map," he exclaims hopelessly. He is out of his depth geographically and emotionally but, obsessed with his own inadequacies, is open to seeing things differently. The landscape whiteness, at first cold and unwelcoming, starts to seem beautiful. Maggie allows Alex to open emotionally whereas Linda, through the intellectual effort he makes to reach her, enables him to rationalise the process and come to terms with his feelings. Linda is a doorway to seeing things differently - "I'm half outside, half inside," she says as she hovers on the porch and we puzzle whether she is being dippy or intentionally defusing a difficult situation.

The mathematical way she describes needing a hug reassures us that she is human, but by then we have learnt a whole new attitude of respect. Snow Cake is a very personal film, not a blockbuster, but a few more films like this could enrich the way we see ourselves.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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A fresh look at autism, communication and human relationships.
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Director: Marc Evans

Writer: Angela Pell

Starring: Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie-Anne Moss, David Fox, Jayne Eastwood, Emily Hampshire, James Allodi, Jackie Brown, Selina Cadell, Johnny Goltz, Mark McKinney

Year: 2006

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Canada


EIFF 2006

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