The debut feature of director Rupert Sanders displays an eye for the spectacular.
Bella Venezia from Italy. Nourie Hadag from Armenia. Gold-tree from Scotland. These and other variations on the story of Snow White (Aarne-Thompson folklore classification No. 709, for those keeping score at home) have been told countless times and in countless forms: plays, novels, TV shows, comic books, Japanese anime. Snow White has spawned more than one horror movie and, inevitably, adult films both animated and live-action. But forget those for now, and forget, too, Tarsem Singh's ill-conceived Mirror, Mirror from earlier this year.
The Grimms' old fable may form the backbone for Snow White and the Huntsman, the feature-film debut of director Rupert Sanders, but he's aiming for something larger, and more epic: for Middle Earth, for Narnia, for Westeros. And while Sanders does not quite hit his bullseye, he's not terribly far off. If you, like me, were disheartened when Guillermo del Toro detached himself from directing The Hobbit, you may find some measure of consolation here. Sanders does not (yet) share del Toro's gifts, but he, too, has an eye for the beautiful and the grotesque, and for that entrancing borderline where the two meet: a verdant glade where the mushrooms have eyes; an Ent-like beast resembling four tons of predatory landscape; a villain who, when struck, bursts into a murder (has the term ever seemed more apt?) of crows.
The rudiments of the story are all in place: A king and queen have a beloved and beautiful daughter named Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and while she is still a girl, the queen dies. The filmmakers have turned the dials up to 11, however, when it comes to the wicked stepmother, Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who takes the queen's place. We first encounter Ravenna launching an attack on the kingdom with a small band of obsidian warriors; when her forces are defeated, she poses as their helpless, brutalized captive. The king, moved by pity and something stronger than pity, quickly brings her into his castle and into his bed. There, alas, his coitus is promptly interruptussed by the dagger she plants in his chest. Ravenna opens the city gates, brings in her genuine army, and begins her dark reign.
It's a trick, we learn, she has performed many times before. Ravenna's great beauty is timeless, or at least subject to regular refurbishment. This she accomplishes in part by bathing in a thick, milky liquid (shades of the Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory's reputed baths in virgins' blood). And, as any serious beauty regimen requires more than a single component, she also has a habit of sucking the youth, Dementor-like, out of the odd pretty girl now and then. One such prematurely wizened lass winds up in a castle cell across the hall from our heroine: Snow White, face to face with a living portrait of Dorian Gray.
Snow White escapes the castle by way of the sewers, like Andy Dufresne flushing himself out of Shawshank State Prison. One conveniently located pale white horse later (there were some audience titters over this), she finds herself in The Dark Forest, which is just as unappealing as you might suppose from the name: animated trees, toxic vapors, beetle hordes, bats and things worse than bats. The queen's men fear the forest themselves, so the queen hires a hunter familiar with the woods (Chris Hemsworth) to find Snow White and to bring her back. He accomplishes the former, but has second thoughts about the latter.
And so it spins outward, with Snow White and her Huntsman fleeing, trailed by soldiers led by Ravenna's doting brother (and, yes, there's more than a whiff of Cersei and Jaime Lannister to the relationship between the blond royal siblings). One by one, the familiar trappings are rolled out: the magic mirror, the dreamless slumber that begins with an apple and ends with a kiss, and, of course, the dwarves. Lest you recoil at this last thought, let me assure you that, against all probability, the dwarves are among the best elements of the film. Surely comparable talent has never been assembled in seven packages so small, however much they may be reduced by digital wizardry: Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, and Bob Hoskins (in one of his best roles in decades). And if that last dwarf, Gus, bears a nagging resemblance to Brendan Gleeson, that would be because he's played by the great Dubliner's son, Brian.
Would that the regular-sized characters were quite so memorable. Hemsworth is sturdy but unremarkable as the Huntsman, having traded in Thor's hammer for a hatchet. Theron is rather a disappointment, her chilly regal beauty giving way to a few decidedly smaller-than-life hissy fits. And two British Sams—Spruell and Claflin, respectively—do yeoman's work as Ravenna's smirky brother and Snow White's would-be champion.
And Kristen Stewart? I'm no particular fan, but I found her performance adequate—at least until she offers her tepid variation on the St. Crispin's Day speech. Yes, she still seems more Bella that Katniss, and this Snow White is no Bella. But Stewart largely disavows the tics and tells her best-known role entailed—the gnawed-on lip, the downcast eyes—in favor of a more forthright relationship with the camera. And while it is true that her girl-next-door prettiness is a somewhat awkward fit for the title of "fairest of them all"—especially compared to Theron's glimmering perfection—the contrast is clearly deliberate.
Still, Snow White and the Huntsman rises (mostly) and falls (occasionally) on the vision of director Sanders. Some, no doubt, will object to the film's self-seriousness and lack of intentional humor. And it's true we must suffer through such clunkers as "The land died and, with it, hope," and "Her innocence and purity can destroy you," for just over two hours—about 15 minutes longer than would be optimal.
It's the look of the film that ultimately lingers, though. Shot largely in Wales, in multitudinous shades of gray (a convenient intersection with faddish fiction), Snow White and the Huntsman is a credit to the visual imagination of Sanders and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Bright Star, the upcoming Killing Them Softly). The movie offers a Jacksonian—that's Peter, not Andrew—sense of scale and topography, and, tucked within it, a litany of small wonders: a downy emerald snake covered with moss, a great white stag with tree limbs for antlers, a tiny fishing village enshrouded first in mist and later in fire. This directorial debut from Sanders is not for everyone, and not without flaw. But it offers powerful glimpses of what might yet be to come.