Saturday, March 31, 2012

On Beauty: MIRROR MIRROR

It’s funny that the films through which general audiences would most likely know director Tarsem, his highest grossing pictures thus far, are hyper-violent, stylized films like 2000’s serial-killer mind-bender The Cell and last fall’s blood-splattered Greek myth Immortals. It’s funny not because those are bad films, but because when Tarsem gets into the realm of fairy-tale fantasy, his dazzling, idiosyncratic visual sense is at its most enveloping and engrossing. He’s a filmmaker with an overwhelmingly beautiful sense of color and composition and a striking attention to the details of eye-catching flourishes of set design and costuming (in some ways he’s a multicultural, postmodern heir to Vincente Minnelli). There’s a reason his greatest work at this point in his career is The Fall, a film at least partially about the power, the wonder, and the vividness of stories told to children.

His latest film – his fourth feature – is the completely family-friendly Mirror Mirror, a retelling of Snow White that takes a colorful and warmly winking approach to the material. This time around, the Evil Queen (Julia Roberts) isn’t just jealous of stepdaughter Snow White (Lily Collins) for being the fairest of them all. The not-too-sad widow wants the girl out of the way so that the Queen herself may marry a rich, square-jawed prince (Armie Hammer) in order to extend her rein and swell the kingdom’s coffers. This sets in motion a plot of miscommunications and misunderstood identity that eventually involves seven dwarves, though you might be surprised to find that they’re roving bandits and their names are Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Half Pint (Mark Povinelli), Grub (Joe Gnoffo), Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Butcher (Martin Klebba), and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark). After one of their robberies, one of them cheerfully remarks, “it’s better than working in a mine!”

Those aren’t the only differences between Melissa Wallack and Jason Keller’s screenplay and the story as traditionally told, or at least the even more familiar way Disney told it once upon a time ago. Here, Snow White is no passive damsel. Not at all. Snow has guts and gumption, plotting with the baker (Mare Winningham) and other loyal servants to overthrow her stepmother and avenger her late father (Sean Bean, who specializes in doomed characters) by taking back the throne. She even asks the prince for help after she sneaks into an introductory ball thrown in his honor. It’s just too bad the mean Queen overhears her and orders her manservant (Nathan Lane) to take Snow out in the forest and kill her. Last minute sympathy causes the servant to instead encourage Snow to flee into the woods. (That’s the most familiar plot point retained).

This is no movie in which Snow White’s just going to sit back, clean a house, whistle while she works, and fall into a coma awaiting Prince Charming. She’s thinking and acting for herself, standing up for herself, asserting her own personhood, and creating a plan of attack. Collins has a wonderfully placid paleness. She’s an easily believable personification of a character referred to as both “the fairest one of all” and “the most beautiful girl in the world.” She looks like a Disney princess. But she has a face with a fiery determination, a beauty that can sharpen with purposeful intensity. Her softness can become her strength. This damsel’s out to save the distressed, the townspeople ground down underneath the Evil Queen’s capricious rule, the poor subjugated so the decadent can ignore them and sit in the palace amidst delightfully disgusting decadence.

Here’s where Tarsem’s long-time collaborator the late, great Eiko Ishioka’s costumes really shine. The palace is a bewigged menagerie of curious aristocrats who wear elaborate costumes and strut about dripping privilege. When we first enter the throne room, for instance, a pompous Duke (Michael Lerner) plays chess with the Queen, a version of the game in which the pieces are servants wearing sailing-ship-shaped hats. Later all at the ball are dressed as animals in ways both beautiful – Snow’s a lovely swan – and hideous, like a man with what appears to be walrus jowls draped about his shoulders. (The Queen’s sniveling servant is, of course, wearing a hat with wiggling insectoid feelers).

This critique of upper-class vanity is most sharply felt in a scene in which the Queen prepares herself for the ball by having, among other great gross-out gags, bird droppings spread on her face, bees sting her lips, grubs placed in her ears, and tiny fish nibble at her cuticles. Roberts’s performance itself is a great portrayal of an aging narcissist. We can see the charmer she once was and still can be. But the desperation to her scheming to retain her beauty, her power, and the power she believes her beauty gives her, is a deranged driver of her evil plots. Of course, we come to realize she’s been totally evil all along, even in her younger days. Her Dorian Gray relationship with the woman in the mirror is only her latest excuse for bad behavior.

I love all these little tweaks to the Snow White fairy tale, but the fact of the matter is that the whole thing still could have been a jangle of clashing tones climbing up, up, and way over-the-top. That it doesn’t go there is a credit to Tarsem, whose vision for the film is a stirring, stunning, candy-colored one resplendent in eye-popping, mind-boggling design of good humor and a great eye. It’s a film I’d be content just to admire for the visuals, but because it has such genuine wit, fun characters, and lively performances to go along with its endlessly delightful look, it’s more than pretty surfaces. Like its Snow White, the film is beautiful inside and out and filled to the brim with invention. From a lovely animated prologue all the way through a Bollywood-inspired production number epilogue, Tarsem directs with a light touch and a sharp eye. I smiled the whole way through. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I actually wish that I had read this earlier, as the ones I read weren't too keen on the plot, and so I didn't make a point of catching it. I knew that the visual would be stunning of course, but now I need to re-think whether the addition of the story might be worth catching it before it leaves theaters.

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