Snow Cake was chosen as the opening Competition film at the 2006 Berlinale. It was an odd choice as it’s a small scale Canadian-British co-production with limited impact. Taciturn Englishman Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) picks up voluble Canadian hitchhiker Vivienne (Emily Hampshire) who is strangely drawn to him in a roadside diner because "most lonely guys have the best stories". Just as we begin to warm to her vivacious character she is killed in a car crash and Alex goes in search of her mother to tell her the terrible news. The mother, Linda (Sigourney Weaver), turns out to be autistic and has no normal way to express her grief, if indeed she has any. But Alex decides to temporarily move in with her, consumed, as he is, with guilt and fearing that she cannot cope on her own. What follows is his journey in coming to terms with the dark secret of his past as he confronts Linda’s enviable ability to constantly live in the moment.
The film boasts an excellent script by Angela Pell but the performances are mixed. Weaver is cast against type as the childish Linda but just about pulls it off with some excellent acting. At times it’s difficult to see past Weaver, the hero of the Alien films, and see the vulnerable adult Linda, who revels in eating snow and behaves in such an apparently eccentric way. But by casting Weaver, director Evans has astutely avoided any notion of pathos surrounding the character. We are less inclined to view her as a sympathy-case but far more as just a different kind of woman. Rickman, on the other hand, struggles to convey the repressed emotions of his role and never seems the genuine article. He excels, as ever, at the sardonic, dry humour of his character but his acting remains within this one dimension and all attempts at genuine emotion seem rather fake and affected.
The two protagonists are more than ably supported by the rest of the cast. Hampshire, as the doomed chatterbox Vivienne, is fantastic. Like her autistic mother she lives life completely in the present and as a result is totally engaging as a personality. Carrie-Ann Moss as Linda’s seductive neighbour provides not only Alex with a love interest, but also Rickman’s fakery with a more convincing and resonant counterpoint. Jayne Westwood and David Fox also give powerful cameo performances as Linda’s parents.
The wobbly hand-held camera work is irksome and there’s an occasional sentimental flashback but for the most part this is a very good film. It’s not particularly cinematic and would work just as well on television, except for the car crash scene, which really is a shocker. Though the main character is autistic, this doesn’t feel like a film about autism, in the way that, say, Rain Man was. Instead, it makes you reflect on how much we are really able to move on from our pasts and how much better it is if we can. Alex vents his frustration at Linda’s inability to obviously grieve for her daughter but in reality he’s just talking about himself. Although we see it as a part of her autism, Linda’s unconventional emotional life is also an appealing alternative to the normal human unwillingness to deal properly with our feelings.
Snow Cake opened in the UK on 08/09/06.