The Snowman review: Tomas Alfredson directs Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole in this highly anticipated film adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s breathtaking bestseller.

The Snowman review by Paul Heath.

The Snowman review
The Snowman review – Credit: Universal Pictures

The Snowman is gripping, engrossing, terrifying, a story with much intrigue and overbearing foreboding – one of Jo Nesbø’s very best in his series of Harry Hole thrillers. The film version, released this week into cinemas to huge anticipation, is sadly none of those things.

A boy witnesses his mother having sexual intercourse with a man who is referred to as his uncle. This man, far from kind to the young boy, is seen quizzing him over varying history related questions just prior, his frustrations being taken out on both should an answer be given incorrectly. A series of event leads to his mother committing suicide by drowning in an icy lake, an event witnessed entirely by the young boy.

Back in contemporary Oslo, several women have mysteriously disappeared, their whereabouts unknown. Detective Harry Hole, here played by Michael Fassbender, is assigned the case, and a new partner in Rebecca Ferguson’s Katrine Bratt, new to town on a transfer from another part of the country. Soon after they take on the case, another woman goes missing, the mother of a young girl, and wife to a husband who is acting more than a little suspiciously. We flashback nine years to Bergen, a city on Norway’s southwestern coast, some 460 kilometers from Oslo where Val Kilmer’s Gert Rafto, a disgraced alcoholic detective, is investigating a brutal murder, and we guess that somehow the events involving Hole and Rafto are perhaps connected.

The Snowman review
The Snowman review – Credit: Universal Pictures

In present-day Oslo, the bodies do start to present, firstly that of Chloë Sevigny’s Sylvia Ottersen, a woman from the outskirts of the city who is found with her head severed and mounted upon a mound of snow, a snowman-like figure that gives the media the perfect nickname for their new serial killer. The rest of the film is a twisty tale of the investigation, a murder-mystery with Hole and Bratt working together to find the crazed psychopath before he strikes again.

The film version of The Snowman, while taking elements from its source material, is a completely different entity to Nesbo’s much-loved novel. The story is the same, but certain character traits, plot beats, twists, and indeed the constant feel of immediate threat and intrigue, are sadly missing. It’s clear that the filmmakers have gone for a heavily adapted, very different version – almost an interpretation of the book, which is no bad thing, but one can’t help but feel that they have, somewhere along the line, managed to completely lose the crucial element that made the original story so engaging.

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Of course, being set and filmed in such a beautiful country, and with the expertise of acclaimed filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago), the look of the film is stunning, the snow-covered mountains and sleet-filled streets of the city perfectly captured. Michael Fassbender puts in a solid turn as Hole, such a key, recurring character in the Nesbo universe, one which he pulls off adequately. Ferguson too is fine as Bratt, but the character is less fleshed-out in the movie than she was in the original story where the part was much more interesting and had a greater motivation and destiny as the story played out.

The Snowman review
The Snowman review – Credit: Universal Pictures

Arve Støp, another very well-written character in the novel, and played here by JK Simmons, has a virtually pointless role, a man with clear issues attempting to bring a version of the Olympic Games to the city. There’s a scene early on where he photographs a young woman’s topless body in the middle of a party, a scene which not only feels gratuitous but completely out of context with the message it is trying to put over.

Being a murder mystery, which is what I would call this, rather than the psychological horror-thriller that it should be, there are many red herrings thrown in along the way, all designed to throw you off the scent of the killer. Sadly, they all stand out like a sore thumb and the identity of the real bad guy can almost be sniffed out as soon as they appear on-screen.

The Snowman review
The Snowman review – Credit: Universal Pictures

Then there’s the very abrupt ending – so very anti-climactic and totally unsatisfying that it makes the viewer angrier rather than fulfilled.

There really isn’t a lot to take away from this rather poor, very plodding – almost boring adaptation of a novel that should have been so much more. One can’t quite help that the material would be more suited to television, every beat of the near-perfect book left intact for a multi-episode episodic narrative spread over several episodes.

As it stands, The Snowman ranks up there with the worst movies of the year – a soulless, pointless adaptation of a great property that should have been left well alone.

The Snowman review by Paul Heath, October 2017.

The Snowman is released in UK cinemas on Friday 13th October 2017.

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The Snowman