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The Snow Walker (March 1/04)

There's something refreshingly old-fashioned about The Snow Walker, a film based on a short story by Farley Mowat. Director Charles Martin Smith - an actor-turned-filmmaker who starred in another Mowat adaptation, Never Cry Wolf - imbues the movie with a distinct classical feel and as a result, the film feels as though it could've been made in the '50s. While this doesn't always work (the black-and-white, slow-motion flashbacks of the central character's wartime experiences seem like they'd be more at home in Airplane!), the steady hand with which Smith tells this story keeps things interesting for the majority of the film's running time.

Set in 1952, the film casts Barry Pepper as Charlie Halliday - a cocky pilot with an inability to see beyond himself. While on a routine job ferrying cargo, he picks up a sick Inuit woman named Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) and the two begin a plane ride back home. Engine troubles ensue, and the plane goes down - stranding the pair in the middle of a vast and desolate area of the Arctic outback.

The Snow Walker plays like a bizarre cross between Gerry and Cast Away, and while Smith doesn't possess the talent of Gus Van Sant or Robert Zemeckis, the simplicity with which he tells this story serves it well. Cinematographers David Connell, Jon Joffin and Paul Sarossy effectively capture the grandeur of the seemingly neverending expanse - while composer Mychael Danna provides a score that nicely compliments the visuals.

Smith's adaptation of Mowat's story is occasionally a little too cut-and-dried, though, primarily in its presentation of some of the supporting characters. This is particularly true of a nasty co-worker of Charlie's, played by Jon Gries. His overly pessimistic attitude never rings true, and seems to exist only to give the story a villain - which is, needless to say, completely unnecessary. Likewise, Smith's obvious love for this material presumably made it impossible for him to make many cuts, leading to a middle section that drags a little. The story picks up nicely towards the end, with Charlie and Kanaalaq working together to survive.

Going a long way towards keeping us interested are the performances, particularly Pepper's enjoyable turn as Charlie. The character is initially the sort that Pepper has already proven he excels in; Charlie is an outwardly brash fellow with a penchant for screaming at inanimate objects (his angry tirade against his own plane is probably one of the more entertaining moments in the film). But as the story progresses, Charlie becomes more than just the usual Pepper figure - he becomes someone that we can relate to and genuinely care about. His relationship (completely platonic) with Kanaalaq brings out a lot of compassion in the character, and first-time actress Piugattuk proves to be a natural performer (her comfort level in front of the camera is already light years beyond some established actors).

There's no doubt that more cynical viewers will hate The Snow Walker, with its admittedly old school approach to the material. But given the skill with which this spare story has been filmed, it's hard not to be entertained on some level.

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