Pure elegance

BRUCE KIRKLAND

, Last Updated: 2:39 PM ET

No English-language writer has captured the essence of arctic life better than Farley Mowat, perhaps the most dynamic man of letters in Canadian history. So it augurs well that The Snow Walker is based on one of his short stories, Walk Well My Brother.

It is no coincidence that this elegant and deceptively simple new film is directed by Charles Martin Smith, an American who has adopted the Great White North as his second home. Smith, also an accomplished character actor, played the lead role in the 1983 film adaptation of Mowat's classic, Never Cry Wolf. The character, of course, was Mowat and he was only slightly exaggerated (truth really is stranger than fiction).

So there is a synergy between filmmaker and source material that spills over onto the screen and makes this film an act of passion as much as it is just good, riveting storytelling. The movie plays in English and Inuktitut.

The events are set in the summer/winter of 1953-54. A brash cowboy-style bush pilot (Barry Pepper) flies supplies and people around in the far north, stopping to bed Caucasian babes he meets in bars or exploit Inuit people he finds in the wilderness for their furs or ivory.

He is an ignorant racist, not because he is overtly malicious, but stupidly because he does not know any better and is too lazy to change. This World War II veteran fancies himself as a man's man, and he is also a sexist lout.

But things change in a crisis. Our anti-hero's plane crashes when he is reluctantly transporting a sickly young Inuit woman (Annabella Piugattuk) to hospital.

Creature comforts disappear, instantly. He has to live off the land and doesn't have a clue. But, the native woman, of course, knows all about survival. They are forced to work together.

As summer disappears and winter looms, the film chronicles their abrupt clash of cultures, the eventual stripping away of prejudices and the unmasking of the truth of the human condition in the most austere physical conditions possible on Earth.

What happens emotionally is predictable: The two protagonists forge a bond of friendship and love. Yet how they wring that relationship out of their hardship is the subtle, beautiful and sometimes terrible strength of this modest film.

The Snow Walker is wonderfully acted, especially by Pepper -- who is as technically proficient as any young actor in Canada -- and by Piugattuk, who had never acted before, but displays a naturalism that allows her to display the emotional and spiritual nature of her people while still being an eccentric and intriguing individual. She is flesh-and-blood, not a type. That deepens the impact of the film, and its tragic elements.

In addition, James Cromwell (the farmer in Babe, the U.S. president in The Sum Of All Fears) provides excellent support work as the boss of the bush pilot operation.

All the elements are subtly brought together under Smith's strong hand as director. So dare to walk a mile in Farley Mowat's shoes: The Snow Walker is a powerful, poignant and transcendent film.

(This film is rated PG)


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