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Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson's first novel, "Snow Falling on Cedars," became a surprise success in 1994 mostly through word of mouth. A well-written, almost poetic look at life in an insular community on an island in the Pacific Northwest, the book was an intriguing blend of courtroom theatrics, forbidden love and the physical and psychological effects of the Second World War filtered through the conscience of the town's newspaperman.

The white natives, many of Scandinavian and Germanic stock, lived in tolerance of their Japanese-American neighbors fishing and growing strawberries until the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Tension escalated and was exacerbated by the forced internment of the Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government.

In the novel, these events collided and erupted in the 1954 trial of a decorated veteran of the U.S. Army, Kazuo Miyamoto, who stood accused of murdering his former childhood friend Carl Heine. The motive was said to be a land deal between their families that went sour. The tale is refracted through the eyes of Ishmael Chambers, who lost an arm in combat, and who carries the guilty secret of a childhood love affair with Miyamoto's wife, Hatsue.

Guterson was able to employ several literary devices, including copious flashbacks via memory that prove problematic when translated to the screen. Ronald Bass, who did yeoman work adapting the equally complicated "The Joy Luck Club," wrote a screenplay but for whatever reasons, director Scott Hicks (making his first feature since 1996's Oscar-nominated "Shine") reportedly reworked the material with Guterson's input, attempting to be more faithful to the novel. The results are a mixed bag, at best.

In trying to capture the literary flavor of the piece, Hicks imposes a nonlinear structure, incorporating flashbacks and flashbacks within those flashbacks. This fragmented approach to the story, mirrored in the camerawork (Hicks has a tendency to shoot faces obscured by objects or shadows), may leave those unfamiliar with the novel confused. Even readers of the book may have trouble following the plot.

Because Hicks has opted to shoot the film in this manner, the leading actors rarely have opportunities to make impressions. Ishmael is a character troubled by his past and by the fact that he has uncovered evidence that might or might not clear the accused. Ethan Hawke struggles gamely to manifest the character's dilemma, but he comes off more poseur than actor. Rick Yune as Miyamoto has little to do but stoically sit and experience the prejudice of those in the community.

Japanese superstar Youki Kudoh makes a fine impression as Hatsue, and there is strong work from several supporting players, notably Arija Bareikis as Heine's widow, Max Wright as a bigoted, self-important coroner, James Cromwell as the trial judge, James Rebhorn as the prosecutor and Caroline Kava as Chambers' mother. Only Max Von Sydow, though, truly makes an impression as the sickly defense attorney. He gets to deliver a closing statement that is clearly designed as Oscar bait, and he does it well, but it offers no real insight into who his character is.

The technical credits are mostly fine, with Robert Richardson's cinematography deserving special mention. The photography and the performances help somewhat to compensate for the jarring storytelling. While there is undoubtedly a fine movie to be made from "Snow Falling on Cedars," this version, despite some of the acting and the photography, is not it.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for disturbing war images, sensuality and brief strong language.

"Snow Falling on Cedars"

Ethan Hawke: Ishmael Chambers

Max Von Sydow: Nels Gudmundsson

Youki Kudoh: Hatsue Miyamoto

Rick Yune: Kazuo Miyamoto

Celia Weston: Etta Heine

A Universal presentation. Director Scott Hicks. Screenplay Ronald Bass and Scott Hicks. Novel David Guterson. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Harry J. Ufland. Director of photography Robert Richardson. Music James Newton Howard. Editor Hank Corwin. Production designer Jeannine Oppewall. Costume designer Renne Erlich Kalfus. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.