During World War Two, the rising paranoia and suspicion in the US led to the compulsory relocation and internment of thousands of blameless Japanese-Americans. And it's this shameful episode which forms the historical backdrop for David Guterson's novel, now filmed by Scott Hicks (`Shine). It's a subject which is ripe for reappraisal - - but unfortunately Snow Falling On Cedars doesn't stimulate enough to give it the treatment it deserves.
Still, Hicks has assembled a top-notch cast, including such imposing talents as Sam Shepard and Max Von Sydow, who is superb as the ageing defence lawyer. He also has a first-rate cinematographer in Robert Richardson (JFK), who supplies some gorgeous visuals, from perfectly-framed snow-scapes to the rainswept cedar forests.
But as wonderful and beguiling as the cinematography is, it's not enough to smother the film's shortcomings. Part of the problem lies with Hawke, who's fatally miscast as the morally ambiguous, emotionally stunted Ishmael. Looking at the slightly pained expression he adopts for all occasions, there's no telling if he's suffering from a broken heart, jealous pangs or indigestion from dodgy sushi.
The main problem, however, is that nothing really happens. The central mystery is perfunctorily resolved, but not before a slew of pre-war flashbacks that have little or no bearing on the action. The rounding-up of the Oriental populace is powerfully done, yet scenes of Ishmael and Hatsue smooching in a cedar are mind-numbingly tedious - the film equivalent of Dutch elm disease.
What Hicks leaves us with is an old-fashioned liberal drama, with Von Sydow's humanitarian doing battle with Rebhorn's bigotry-spouting prosecutor before Cromwell's crotchety judge. If all this sounds faintly familiar, then that's because To Kill A Mockingbird trod exactly the same ground almost 40 years ago.
This adaptation of David Guterson's bestseller may be ponderous and sluggish, but you can't deny that it's been beautifully realised. Yet, for all its visual depth, it's nothing more than an old-style courtroom drama with delusions of grandeur.