The Snow Walker Charles Martin Smith

The Snow Walker Charles Martin Smith
In 1983, character actor Charles Martin Smith (who is probably best known as the mild-mannered accountant in The Untouchables) landed his first and only lead role as a solitary animal researcher in Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf, an adaptation of a Farley Mowat story. If you've seen the film, you probably haven't forgotten the sequence where he runs naked across the arctic barrens with a herd of caribou. You could feel the elation of real freedom in his performance, and it's easy to imagine he's been longing to revisit the material ever since. Now, finally, he has, only this time from the director's seat.

The Snow Walker is an adaptation of two Mowat stories ("The Snow Walker" and "Walk Well My Brother"), and, like Never Cry Wolf, it has the same man versus nature/man embraces nature set-up. The punchy, spirited Barry Pepper is well cast as Charlie, a cocksure pilot who runs deliveries out of Yellowknife. On a routine supply run, Charlie encounters an Inuit family who convince him — with bribes of ivory — to take their tubercular daughter Kanaalaq (Annabella Piugattuk) to a hospital. On the way back, however, the plane crashes and Charlie finds himself trapped in the arctic wastes with an invalid who seems to speak no English.

From there, Smith's film follows the time-honoured "white person learns from native person" set-up, but to its credit, it does so with surprisingly little schmaltz. Unlike Dances With Wolves, The Snow Walker never tries to convince us that native culture is inherently superior to white culture; Kanaalaq simply knows her away around better than Charlie does, that's all.

The film was shot in and around Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and the wide-open arctic vistas are its chief pleasure (the two lead performances running a close second). But there is also pleasure in Smith's even-handed approach to the material — for once, we are allowed to enjoy a conventional story without feeling insulted by it. (Lions Gate)