More Courtroom than Courting
Snow Falling on Cedars
Review by Ross Anthony

When a tight shot of freshly caught fish gasping for air on the puddled floorboards of a small fishing boat is saturated with all the aesthetics of a Renoir painting ... you know you're in for an artistically filmed production. Well "Cedars" won't let you down. Scrupulously, meticulously, caringly exposed on the negative, this picture is one of the richest cinematographic efforts of the year.

The art doesn't stop with the image. Attentive and crisp sounds accentuate the visual buffet. The crackling ignition of a match, the pouring of hot tea: this is an abundantly textured film. Additionally, the score refreshingly fuses new age with traditional movie music composition.

Oddly, this love story is really more of a courtroom drama; however, as soon as we realize this, the artistry and the plot line unfortunately take off in different directions.

We view this 1930-1950's story mostly through the eyes of hesitant reporter Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) who as a child and teen shared a secret romance with a Japanese girl from his small town. When the woman's husband is accused of murder, Ishmael has to battle his 20-year-old obsession in order to decide if he should help defend the man that stole his girl.

One of the film's finest moments finds the widow on the stand, attorney mouthing muted words while passionate memories of her husband play out on screen to screaming violins.

The leads aren't particularly strong, but Richard Jenkins as the Sheriff gives a great supporting performance and Max Von Sydow is charming as the defense lawyer. Fine casting.

I was trembling with excitement over this film until the halfway mark when the art became more than a tad indulgent neglecting its responsibility to story, making the film rather disproportionate. "Cedars" toys with a love fable, toys with making a statement of Japanese suffrage (the concentration camps for Japanese-Americans during W.W.II), spends a lot of time in the courtroom, but is ultimately a tale of one man's wrestle with an obsession recorded on film in a fashion far superior to its story. Still, it is simply the most beautiful courtroom drama you'll ever see.

  • Snow Falling on Cedars. Copyright © 1999. Rated PG-13.
  • Starring Ethan Hawke, Youki Kudoh, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, James Rebhorn, Sam Shepard, Max Von Sydow, Rick Yune.
  • Directed by Scott Hicks.
  • Screenplay by Ron Bass and Scott Hicks.
  • Based on the novel by David Guterson.
  • Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Grank Marshall at Universal/Harry J. Ufland.


Copyright © 1999. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 07:54:00 PDT