by Tony Dayoub
At times it soars and other times it just kind of lays there, but all in all, Snow White and the Huntsman is a great deal better than I had been led to believe. It comes down to whether you are the type of viewer who can forgive a film's flaws if its visuals are as stunning as this movie's are. This is the second film this year to update the Grimm fairy tale. But Snow White and the Huntsman is a darker retelling than this year's kiddie-oriented Mirror Mirror, a lot more frightful and intense. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In) and director Rupert Sanders (helming his first feature) run right at Snow White's derivative script, embracing its influences. However, it is unlike other films which wear their homages proudly on their sleeve, like, say, last year's Drive. That movie blatantly lifted from progenitors like Thief and The Driver to worse effect, highlighting its own inferiority if you will, while Snow White and the Huntsman improves on many of the concepts which inspired its production design.
Charlize Theron, who plays Ravenna, deserves a large part of the credit. Ravenna is a more disturbing, and disturbed, sorceress queen than her most obvious precursor, Helen Mirren's Morgana in Excalibur. Like Morgana, Ravenna is obsessed with staying youthful. But, because of her all consuming distrust and hatred of men, Ravenna represses her sexual desire. As a result, her manipulative relationship with her twisted albino brother Finn (Sam Spruell), with its intimations of incest, is far more complicated than the one Mirren's Morgana fostered with her icy blond son, Mordred (offspring of a union with her brother Arthur). Ravenna toys with Finn's fraternal ardor, reinforcing her inability to open her heart to anyone but those related by blood. This overreliance on an extension of her self highlights the fairy tale queen's legendary narcissism, providing subtext to, if not fully explaining, why she seeks to be "the fairest of them all."
Standing in the way of Ravenna's goal is Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight). In her costuming, her rapport with the earthy Huntsman-with-no-name (Chris Hemsworth,) and her respect for the seven dwarves who come to her rescue, the princess is not unlike Lili from 1985's Legend. (Just like Legend's visual fabulist, Ridley Scott, Sanders started out shooting commercials.) One shot draws a clear link between the two movies, and it is at this point that Snow White and the Huntsman seems to momentarily hover in the same ether the scene seems to depict. Snow White reaches for a mythical white stag in a forest alive with fairies. The dwarves (played by the likes of Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane and Ray Winstone among others) observe her connection to the forest—and life itself—in much the same way the little people of Legend spied on Lili trying to bond with a unicorn. In both films, the scenes end with the violence of outsiders disrupting the harmony of the idyll.
Unfortunately, the sullen Stewart, the linchpin necessary for Snow White and the Huntsman to work, is not up to the task of sustaining Snow White and the Huntsman's fragile reality. Stewart has only two modes of expression, angst and despondence; smiles actually seem painful to the actress. Without the range needed to fully evoke the sense of wonder we are told is inherent in her character, all of the fine work of Sanders and Fraser fails to amount to much.
Perhaps they should have cast someone more along the lines of the Helene Bergsholm, star of Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen). The 20-year-old actor's ability to carry a movie (and her resemblance to a young Nicole Kidman) portends of future stardom. Bergsholm plays Alma, a girl coming of age in a small town not close enough to Oslo, where she hopes to escape to. Her burgeoning sexuality is treated sensitively by director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen. Still, Jacobsen manages to be frank enough to depict Alma's fantasies honestly while eschewing any titillation. At a party, her crush, Artur (Matias Myren), approaches Alma in a way I can only describe as... rather direct. I'm protecting the film's secrets rather than being prudish, but suffice to say that poor Alma is so shocked by Artur's naivete that she blurts out what she did in front of another friend who likes Artur. Alma soon becomes the town pariah, known to all as "dick-Alma."
Just like the heroine of the previous film reviewed here, Alma is trying to find her place in the world, learning to balance her innate ability to attract men with her inability to brush aside petty female rivalries. But first-time actress Bergsholm, as seen in the photo above, has a talent for communicating Alma's inner world almost imperceptibly. Contrast that with the impenetrable Stewart, whose talent for communicating even her own personal feelings is imperceptible. It makes you wonder if Hollywood should really be gambling their ballooning-budget features away on an actress like Stewart, the latest in a long line of teen idols destined to fade away.
Update: Here we go again: retrograde thinking in Tuscaloosa, Alabama has forced its Arts Council to pull Turn Me On, Dammit! from its summer film series. From all indications, no one who demanded the movie be pulled has actually seen it (hat tip: Farran Smith Nehme).