Hollywood must be filled with great minds, because every so often, the thinking is alarmingly alike. In 1992, for instance, the studios thought that the time was ripe for two separate mega-productions about the unveiling of America – hence, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. At other times – and barely months apart – we’ve been presented two dramas about the writing of In Cold Blood (Infamous and Capote), two thrillers about asteroids crashing into earth (Armageddon and Deep Impact), two sumptuous adaptations of a Choderlos de Laclos novel (Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons), two frisky animated features situated around insect colonies (Antz and A Bug’s Life), and two grim men-on-Mars sagas (Mission to Mars and Red Planet). Once, during a bizarre stretch in 1987/88, we got four comedies about men who find themselves in another person’s body – Big, Vice Versa, 18 Again and Like Father, Like Son. And we complain about our films being the same.
The Brothers Grimm seem be the flavour this year. We just saw, in Tarsem Singh’s flamboyantly mounted Mirror Mirror, a revisionist update of the Snow White story, and now we have Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders, who is a more subtle stylist. His visuals carry an elegant charge. The opening sequence depicts the queen (Snow White’s mother) strolling through her castle grounds in winter, and the sight is presented as an ice-encrusted topiary, as if seen through a snow globe. Once the story steps outside, into the squelch of mud in what appears to be the Middle Ages, the images acquire the sheen of the macabre – bird carcasses teeming with maggots, the back of a witch rendered like the skeleton of a fish that’s just been devoured at dinner. Even the home of the fairies is not a twinkling wonderland but a quiet expanse of green, dotted with one-eyed toadstools and a moss-encrusted tortoise.
This, in other words, is not the Snow White you want to take your four-year-old to. With the exception of birds that help the adult Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in return for the kindnesses she showed them as a child, the director is not interested in a family-friendly fairy tale. What he wants to do, at least going by the initial stretch, is impart to Snow White’s stepmother what screenwriters like to call “motivation.” In Walt Disney’s telling of the story, she was evil because… that’s what villains are, evil. But Ravenna (Charlize Theron), here, is a clear case of damaged goods. She comes with a backstory that has her, as a child, “begging for scraps,” and as a grown-up, replaced in the hearts and the beds of many men. “Men use women,” she snarls (Theron throws her voice around like she’s never done before), and her revenge is to kill her husband – Snow White’s father – on their wedding night. (He married her after his queen died.)
Theron plays Ravenna the way Demi Moore played the emasculating boss in Disclosure, as a power-mad creature yoked to a wagonload of insecurity. There is a hint of incest in her relationship with her brother (Sam Spruell, in a creepy pageboy haircut), whom she orders around like a slave, and when she stands before the famous mirror and asks “Who is the fairest of them all?”, she looks as if she dreads the answer. When she learns that it is Snow White (who was thrown into prison as a young girl and has now grown-up), she demands the heart of her stepdaughter, which will make her immortal. Ravenna’s beauty regimen consists of bathing in milk (in the presence of said brother) and sucking the souls of the young girls of the land, whose youth banishes her wrinkles and makes her look young again. (It’s a fitting metaphor for Botox.) And yet, these baneful powers do little to reassure her. Is she a victim? An avenging white-goddess? An embodiment of womanly insecurity? Scholars of feminism can embark on boundless treatises on Ravenna, projecting on her whatever they want.
The film’s big tragedy is that this fascinating woman – all right, witch – is forced to abdicate the screen for a bland and altogether generic warrior-heroine. Stewart certainly looks the part – she always seems on the verge of a major decision, yet hesitant to do what she must – but unlike Theron, she’s playing a construct rather than a character. With her arrival, the film transforms into an adventure/quest filled with strange creatures of every stripe, with Ravenna as Darth Vader/Sauron and Snow White as Luke Skywalker/Frodo, an unlikely conscript in a war against evil. (“She will heal the land,” says one of the dwarves, with the kind of hushed awe that accompanies gnomic utterances in the movies. “She is The One.”) Snow White is helped by a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a drunk mourning his dead wife, and William (Sam Claflin), a childhood friend. The ensuing love triangle is acknowledged but never acted upon, another narrative thread sacrificed at the altar of action.
For that is what Snow White and the Huntsman settles into – a series of combat sequences, egged on by excessive special effects. (Of course the evil army under Ravenna’s command cannot consist of just human soldiers. They have to be made of what looks like shards of graphite, all the better to spill out when dismembered in battle.) Ravenna resigns herself, bafflingly, to the sidelines, content to worry about her wrinkles, waiting till almost the end of the movie to work her dark magic again. But for all its frustrations, this isn’t a film you easily forget, if only for its overreach. Where else, these days, will you find yourself transported into a simulacrum of the Middle Ages, with its curious conflation of the Christian and the pagan? (Throw in the revenge angle, and this begins to feel like Bergman’s The Virgin Spring reshaped for the digital era.) As Snow White entreats a higher power (“Our Father, who art in heaven…”), we realise we are in the presence of a fairy-tale heroine whose truck isn’t with her godmother but with God. It may be no accident that Ravenna, bearing the cross of womankind, is often sighted with a tiara that tapers into jagged spikes. That’s her crown of thorns.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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