Friday, June 08, 2012

Revisionist 'Snow White' is darkly beautiful

"Snow White and the Huntsman," a revisionist take on the Brothers Grimm story, is one of the most faithful, at least in tone, adaptations of the tale.

Most fairy tales are sugar coated, so it is easy to forget that the works of the Brothers Grimm were dark and twisted parables. Even Disney's classic 1938 version of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," for all its sunniness and cheer, couldn't remove all the sinister qualities of the story.

In this version, the evil queen is Ravenna (Charlize Theron), a mystical woman obsessed with beauty, youth and subverting a cruel patriarchal society that uses women and then tosses them aside. This queen moves from kingdom to kingdom overthrowing kings. She preserves her beauty by sucking the souls of the young and pretty, and eating the hearts of animals.

Snow White (Kristen Stewart), the daughter of the last king to fall to Ravenna, is imprisoned in a tower for years. She eventually makes her escape into the dark forest. Ravenna has discovered that if she eats Snow White's pure heart she will be eternally beautiful. She sends the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to bring her back, but upon meeting the fair maiden he switches sides.

Naturally, Snow White and her new ally meet the dwarves, a motley collection of reliable English character actors including Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones and Nick Frost. Soon an army is formed with Snow White and the Huntsman leading the charge.

In addition to being the Huntsman, the character now essentially fills the role of Prince Charming, so it is odd that there is also a prince (Sam Claflin) thrown into the mix. Like the Huntsman he is a worthy warrior, but he is also dull and wooden as performed by Clafin. The character is entirely unnecessary and seems to only exist to create a "Twilight"-like love triangle since the film stars Bella herself.

Perhaps Stewart has been playing Bella too long or perhaps she simply has no range, but she gives the same flat, pouty faced performance that she's been given in the puerile "Twilight" series.

Stewart plays everything on the same note. We're supposed to believe that people are drawn to Snow White's beauty and her vibrant, warm personality, but Stewart brings none of that across. Thankfully, Stewart isn't asked to speak much. She does have one supposedly rousing speech to the troops before battle, but it is hard to imagine anyone being moved to follow Stewart into a kitchen let alone onto a battlefield.

In contrast, Theron's performance is fierce and frightening. She also manages to create some sympathy for the character in spite of her villainous way. Theron creates a fully dimensional character that is far more interesting than Stewart's bland Snow White.

Hemsworth, who is best known to audiences as Thor, continues to showcase a masculine charisma paired with a sensitive soul. He is believable in both action scenes and in the more tender moments.

The dwarves, a gruffer bunch than the familiar Disney versions, don't arrive until about an hour in, but are wonderfully acted particularly by the always splendid Hoskins. The film could've used more of them.

Director Rupert Sanders, making his feature film debut following a career directing commercials, creates an extraordinary looking film with striking visuals that have power to linger in the mind. Most directors that come from a background in commercials have a tendency to rely heavily on quick, chaotic editing, but Sanders actually allows for shots of some length. His scenes often have a poetic beauty to them and fluid pacing.

Sanders, along with his extensive art direction team, have created a bleak, but vivid world that favorably recalls Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth." Snow White's first venture into the dark forest is truly nightmarish as she deals with a mushroom spore induced trip. On the flip side there is the brightly designed land of the fairies which includes turtles gathered in grass and mushrooms with eyes.

It is a credit to the strength of everything else around Stewart that the film still works in spite of her painfully uninteresting lead performance. The film is worth seeing for Theron's compelling characterization and the memorable visual splendor on display.

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