The dark, hardboiled, atmospheric genre of crime fiction, television and film known as “Nordic noir” has set a very high bar. The Millennium Trilogy, Headhunters, The Killing and The Bridge are just the tip of the iceberg that has built a substantial fan base.

Add to that the lofty reputation of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø and the pedigree of director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and The Snowman makes an enticing prospect.

All of which makes it a perplexing duty to report that this adaptation of Nesbø’s Harry Hole adventure, featuring the popular recurring character, is a major disappointment. It’s odd that a drama about a serial killer whose victims are women and ways of killing them horrible should be so lacking in tension, horror, pathos and excitement, or that a detective story can make such heavy weather of its plot. Fans may be dumbfounded, newcomers unmoved.

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Michael Fassbender plays the aptly named Hole, who we first see as an alcoholic sleeping on park benches, holding onto his dazzling detective’s career by his fingertips. Harry is also recently estranged from his lover Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but maintains friendly relations because of the bond he’s forged with Rakel’s teenage son.

Salvation of sorts is always possible for Harry, as long as he’s given a meaty case. And he’s got the antennae for one. Thus he’s quick to join new colleague Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson) as she investigates a missing person case – a mother who we’ve already seen stalked, then taken in the middle of the night while her daughter slept.

There have been other disappearances, all marked by the presence of elaborately made snowmen at the abduction scene, and which are connected to a cold case – the unsolved murder and dismemberment of a young woman, some 30 years before. One lead points towards a clinic that specialises in abortion; another, in true Nordic noir fashion, takes the cops into the public realm – in this case the Norwegian bid for the Winter Olympics and the sleazy, womanising head of the bid.

Alfredson, who made winter snow so unsettling in his horror film Let the Right One In, and his cinematographer Dion Beebe shoot the various snowy locales very evocatively. And Nesbø’s mingling of such a cute image as the snowman with a malign villain does impart the occasional chill.

For his part, Fassbender has the ideal cool for this milieu, and easily implies that Hole’s emotions are in dire need of a thaw. But it would have been wise to give him more to do with the character; we learn nothing about Hole’s demons, his history of drink and what drove him to it; without context, his disarray seems like an easy add-on rather than serious characterisation.

And this touches on the chief problem of the film, the screenplay, which never gets into its groove. Characters are introduced, played by good actors (Chloe Sevigny, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones), then just disappear; one major character – in a change from the novel – is given a fate that simply makes no sense; as the legendary detective stumbles towards a lucky break, it becomes debatable whether we’re looking at cunning red herrings or just shoddy plotting.

Writers Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor) and Hossein Amini (Drive) have strong form. And in his previous films, Alfredson demonstrated a real rigour. But this meanders from one scene to another, without any great highs to drive it along. And it doesn’t help that, in my humble opinion, the killer’s identity is obvious long before the end.