There is fear and there is enchantment, the cornerstones of any classic Grimm's fable. There is a compelling and even poignant villain who wraps her sins in a bodice of style. There is a flamboyant director who can't stop showing off and has the talent to back up a goodly share of his boasts. Yes, there are many splendid reasons to see Snow White and the Huntsman – enough, maybe, not to care that neither Snow White nor the Huntsman rank high among them.
After the recent Mirror Mirror, which reduced the fable to a gormless accumulation of low camp, the title here testifies to a more aggressive take – wiping clean any trace of Disney's "Heigh-ho" charm and cranking up the action to attract young males. To that end, the main casting is made to measure: Just recruit Thor, a.k.a. Chris Hemsworth, to play the huntsman, then entice Kristen Stewart off that Twilight gig to get all snowy and white. The formula seemed banal and the intention suspect. Surprise – it's a whole lot better than that.
Indeed, Britisher Rupert Sanders (another director who came to features via the flashy TV commercial route) opens with a lightning-fast intro that owes more to James Frazer's The Golden Bough than anything from the Marvel bible. It starts with the birth of the saviour child, destined to "heal the land," quickly followed by her mother's death from natural causes and her father's from a dagger plunged deep to his heart. The blade is wielded on the wedding bed by his new wife, the blond and beauteous Ravenna, which gives Charlize Theron her first chance to purr with venomous purpose. Her purr is magnificent. "Men uuuuse women," she whispers, just before putting that knife to its own lethal use. Point taken.
Quickly, the child grows into Kristen Stewart, who finds herself imprisoned in the castle tower – perhaps for her woefully failed attempt to forge a British accent. Of course, she escapes, prompting Ravenna to convert that whisper into operatic ire, all directed at her even blonder brother Finn. Her shout, "Have I not given you everything?", hints darkly at one thing. The blonde on blondness, plus that incest allusion, rings a familiar bell, and when Ravenna dips her naked body into a bath of milk, the bell tolls louder: Suddenly, intriguingly, we're in Game of Thrones territory.
Admittedly, at times, the medievalism threatens to tip into outrageous theatricality, but Sanders has a happy knack of righting the balance, of dipping into his bag of high style to impress us with wonders dark and light. Like the sequence in the dark forest when he disinters a terrible troll from beneath a stone bridge, only to have the monster tamed by beauty's half-smile. Or like his travelling shot across a mist-filled lake to a village peopled entirely with self-mutilated women, their faces bearing the scars of their sacrifice – for them, beauty was a burden traded for male-less freedom. Or like the cathedral-light of the dawn in "fairy land," when blue-eyed sprites awaken from the belly of a dove and Snow White ruffles the fur of a snow-white stag. Gorgeous.
As for the dwarfs, they're portrayed by an impressive crew of veteran and full-sized actors (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones) miniaturized by cinematic trickery. More important, the little ones are deployed less as a comedic troupe than a tragic chorus – when one of them dies, their dirge is a touching lament. Also, throughout, Sanders moves his camera deftly from sweeping panoramas to extreme close-ups, including one of our busy heroine's dirty fingernails – a Snow White that Caravaggio would have loved.
Alas, the climactic battle scene, the storming of the castle by the forces of good, is a signal disappointment. But the figure of evil never is. Even when Ravenna is sustaining her beauty by inhaling the dying breath of virgins – apparently the Botox of the time – Theron somehow manages to humanize her. And when she doesn't, Sanders races to the rescue. Watch for a stunning sequence where Ravenna morphs from an alluring woman in a feathered gown into a dark cloud of scattering birds and then back to a woman again, but bedraggled now, like the Black Swan tarred by an oil slick – her cursed beauty gone, and snow white winter nigh.
Snow White and the Huntsman
- Directed by Rupert Sanders
- Written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock, Hossein Amini
- Starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth
- Classification: PG