Friday, June 1, 2012

Fairy Tale, Fractured: SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN

Only the latest iteration of the fairy-tale-into-big-budget-spectacle trend that’s sweeping Hollywood, Snow White and the Huntsman hacks out an identity all its own. Unlike Mirror Mirror, a candy-colored family-friendly confection that Tarsem whipped up for release earlier this year, Huntsman is a darker, grimmer thing, drawing less inspiration from the safe, colorful comedy of children’s fantasy and more from the kind of dour, sweeping fantasy spectacle of the likes of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or HBO’s Game of Thrones. The script by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini takes apart the old story of the evil queen and her fairest-of-them-all stepdaughter until all that’s left and recognizable is aspects of the tale’s iconography: the mirror, the poison apple, the dwarves. What the film does with them is sometimes surprising and ultimately satisfying. This is a handsome and effective spectacle.

The film starts with Ravenna (Charlize Theron), an evil witch, tricking a king into marrying her. On their honeymoon, she straddles him and plunges a dagger into his chest. She flips back on the bed, basking in her triumph as her army storms past unsuspecting guards to take over the castle. Her stepdaughter, Snow White, is promptly locked away, so as not to interfere with her rule. Years later, now grown, Snow (Kristen Stewart) gets a chance to escape and flees into the dark forest. The queen, her good looks and terrible magic ever reliant on sucking the youthful souls out of beautiful young women, has learned that the only way she can make her dark powers permanent is to eat Snow White’s heart. So she sends her right-hand man, who happens to be her creepy brother (Sam Spruell), and a strapping, alcoholic huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to chase down the escaped girl.

When they find her, the huntsman takes sympathy on Snow White and, instead of helping the queen’s brother, decides to help her. Together they fight off the queen’s henchmen and flee through the woods, where they will meet all manner of creatures, both frightening and enchanting, on their way towards safety. But it’s not safety Snow wants. She wants her kingdom. On their journey, they meet many potential allies amongst the people living in fear of the evil queen, including a band of dwarves (great British actors Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, and Toby Jones shrunk down through movie magic) and a young man (Sam Claflin) who knew Snow in the years before her father’s death and who is now a talented archer. But even as they make their way through the wilderness, Ravenna glides through the castle, plotting her ultimate victory and flexing her supernatural muscles, transforming into a flock of inky ravens and commanding a phantom army made up of black shards.

This all sounds like the Snow White tale has been turned into just another epic-quest fantasy film with swooping shots of a band of allies trudging through picturesque landscapes. In some ways that’s exactly what it is, but what saves the film from becoming just an imitation is the intensity and earnestness with which commercial director Rupert Sanders, making an impressive feature film debut, stages the action. Like one of those grungy fantasies of the 1980s (I was thinking of Matthew Robbins’s Dragonslayer, but it at times put me in mind of Ron Howard’s Willow as well), Sanders makes his fantasy world muddy and convincingly worn-down. There’s a certain kind of realism to the striking visuals here that’s hugely rewarding. Dark magic has done a number on this ruined landscape and as our characters make their way through it, there’s a feeling of real melancholy. The effects – many are clearly elaborate, but convincing, CGI – are given space to breathe and consequentially often, especially in a mid-film respite in a mossy woodland oasis crawling with cute critters and a casual dusting of magical beings that reminded me of similar moments in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, have some real awe behind them. The pace of the picture stretches out, allowing time for Greig Fraser’s beautiful cinematography (he’s also done gorgeous work for Jane Campion and Matt Reeves) to truly soak in the sights and for the subtle work of the ensemble to provide real human emotion to the stakes of it all.

Less subtle is Theron’s villainous turn as the evil queen Ravenna. She’s icy and coldly sensual, submerging herself in a tub of milk in an effort to maintain her smooth skin between injections of young souls. She’s rotten to the core, given to howling out awful demands. But she, too, is fleshed out to the point where she’s also a bit of a tragic figure. Similarly, Stewart’s Snow White is no mere placid figure of beauty. She’s rough around the edges, with a steely determination in her eyes and a real fighting spirit within her. None of this is overwrought or heavily underlined, though, even as the plot’s ending is more or less predetermined. But the complicating of the female roles and the patriarchal assumptions of the original tale happens matter-of-factly. This is just the way the story unfolds this time. (I appreciated how it all ends, too. Without giving anything away, it ends without any kind of wedding-bells romantic conclusion, instead ending on a note of weary relief.) I would never have guessed that such a serious, dark, unsmiling yet heartfelt interpretation of Snow White would have been so gripping and involving. It’s quite lovely in the way it’s underplayed.

This is a big, thunderous fantasy epic that’s filled with excitement, incident and action, embellished with expensive effects, and yet it feels so downbeat, so patiently paced and unafraid of stillness and silence. It’s genuinely creepy, tense, and moving. And yet it’s never insistent or pressing; the cast is treating this material with utter seriousness and, though that can certainly backfire, here it helps that the material is so earnest and sensitively tuned. (It could be a bit more complicated, perhaps, but let’s not press our luck.) There’s a real respect to matters of life and death here. When a character is in danger or dies, there’s a real mournfulness in the way that’s presented. That is something all too rare in this age of easy computerized carnage and quick-cut climaxes wherein digital cannon fodder and background collateral damage is just a backdrop for superheroics. Rupert Sanders handles this big movie with such a striking eye for visuals and such surprising facility with tone and emotion that I suspect he has a big career ahead of him. The idea to take a well-worn tale and retell it with modern tools from a modern sensibility seems rather uninspired, but Sanders has made a film of real, satisfying imagination.

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