It is often observed that the media moves in the opposite direction to our times, that as our circumstances become increasingly strained, our entertainment becomes commensurately whimsical, and certainly fairy tales have been a trend of the last year, with both Once Upon a Time and Grimm finding success on television. Now, trailing the heels of Tarsem Singh’sMirror, Mirror comes the second film adaptation of the Snow White tale of the year.
Like Singh, Rupert Sanders has a background in commercials, though with an estimated $170 million budget, he commanded twice the resources to ensure Snow White and the Huntsman was the prettiest of them all, and the depth of his coffers is demonstrated in the magnificent grounds and gardens that surround the grand halls of the castle of King Magnus and the sweeping countryside beyond that is scorched by the wickedness of the sorceress Ravenna to the twisted malevolance of the borders of the dark forest.
This world is a much darker vision than Singh’s playful satire, more akin to Michael Cohn’s 1997 Snow White: A Tale of Terror starring Sigourney Weaver and Sam Neill, and is evidenced in the harshness with which the characters are treated, the trials they must overcome, the grime under Snow White’s fingernails, so why does it feel like a sugarcoated Game of Thrones with all the good bits cut out?
The only approach that could have breathed new life into a story so well known would be to make it bold and modern, yet for all the expense and modern production values, it is hopelessly old fashioned and chaste, with only minor embellishments beyond the traditional story of the wicked stepmother who displaces the daughter born to privilege who is then rescued from her exile in the woods by seven dwarves. The thundering hooves of the massed horses and glinting steel of sword and armour cannot conceal that the story was conceived for children, an obligation made apparent by the lack of blood in the otherwise convincing battle scenes.
Like Charlize Theron’s superficial performance as Ravenna, the film is well presented, but with no depth supporting the glacial surface, bursts of volume substituting for emotion, and the running time of over two hours, while implying a major motion picture event, is comprised of stilted tedium. When Sanders occasionally channels his former life, such as when Snow White escapes on horseback across the beach against a backdrop of crashing oceans, dazzling sunshine framing the soft focus slow motion, it is completely out of place with the attempted realism of the rest of the film.
It is this reliance on spectacle that undermines the film: the electronic dazzle of post production is at odds with the mood created on set. The dwarves are fine in trick photography, but compositing them into the main shots is less successful; the horrors of the dark wood, enhanced by the use of subliminal sound, are effective, but the fairy glen is just silly. Twice, once with fake snake venom and once with fake feathers, there is splatter on the camera lens, but attempts to convince the eye only emphasise how unconvincing the illusion was in the first place.
As the eponymous Snow White and Huntsman, Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth are adequate, with Stewart giving a better performance than she has ever been called upon while skulking in the Twilight, but both are hampered by a script that ticks boxes rather than challenges preconceptions and a pace that extends every scene to the point of ridicule. Sam Claflin manages to do better despite minimal screen time as William, Snow White’s childhood friend, now talented archer. The dwarves, despite being an impressive assembly of experienced British character actors, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones among them, arrive so late they are almost an afterthought and serve only as a plot device to gain access to the castle.
Theron is saddled with a painfully obvious role, evil from the moment she arrives onscreen and revealed as an immortal soul stealer who commands the phantom armies of the night within the first half hour, what arc can her character take? Instead of seduction and persuasion, her sorcery is as obvious as the Madonna video from which she stole her ability to transform into a flock of ravens. The magic is too heavy and her powers revealed too soon, and with nowhere to go, the final scenes are inevitably flat.
Snow White and the Huntsman is currently on general release