We just saw, in Tarsem Singh's flamboyantly mounted Mirror Mirror, a revisionist update of the Snow White story, and now we have Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders, who is a more subtle stylist. His visuals carry an elegant charge. The opening sequence depicts the queen (Snow White's mother) strolling through her castle grounds in winter, and the sight is presented as an ice-encrusted topiary, as if seen through a snow globe. Once the story steps outside, into the squelch of mud in what appears to be the Middle Ages, the images acquire the sheen of the macabre. Even the home of the fairies is not a twinkling wonderland but a quiet expanse of green, dotted with one-eyed toadstools.

The director is not interested in a family-friendly fairy tale. What he wants to do, at least going by the initial stretch, is impart to Snow White's stepmother what screenwriters like to call “motivation.” In Walt Disney's telling of the story, she was evil because... that's what villains are, evil. But Ravenna (Charlize Theron), here, is a clear case of damaged goods. She comes with a backstory that has her, as a child, “begging for scraps,” and as a grown-up, replaced in the hearts and the beds of many men.

Theron plays Ravenna the way Demi Moore played the emasculating boss in Disclosure, as a power-mad creature yoked to a wagonload of insecurity. When she stands before the famous mirror and asks “Who is the fairest of them all?”, she looks as if she dreads the answer. When she learns that it is Snow White (who was thrown into prison as a young girl and is now played by Kristen Stewart), she demands the heart of her stepdaughter, which will make her immortal. But these baneful powers do little to reassure her. Is she a victim? An avenging white-goddess? An embodiment of womanly insecurity? Scholars of feminism can embark on boundless treatises on Ravenna, projecting on her whatever they want.

The film's tragedy is that this fascinating woman is forced to abdicate the screen for a bland and altogether generic warrior-heroine. Stewart certainly looks the part — she always seems on the verge of a major decision, yet hesitant to do what she must — but unlike Theron, she's playing a construct rather than a character. With her arrival, the film transforms into an adventure/quest filled with strange creatures of every stripe, with Ravenna as Darth Vader/Sauron and Snow White as Luke Skywalker/Frodo, an unlikely conscript in a war against evil. (“She will heal the land,” says one of the dwarves, with the kind of hushed awe that accompanies gnomic utterances in the movies. “She is The One.”)

Snow White is helped by a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), a drunk mourning his dead wife, and William (Sam Claflin), a childhood friend. The ensuing love triangle is acknowledged but never acted upon, another narrative thread sacrificed at the altar of action.

For that is what Snow White and the Huntsman settles into — a series of combat sequences, egged on by excessive special effects. Ravenna resigns herself, bafflingly, to the sidelines, content to worry about her wrinkles, waiting till almost the end of the movie to work her dark magic again.

But for all its frustrations, this isn't a film you easily forget, if only for its overreach. Where else, these days, will you find yourself transported into a simulacrum of the Middle Ages, with its curious conflation of the Christian and the pagan? (Throw in the revenge angle, and this begins to feel like Bergman's The Virgin Spring reshaped for the digital era.)

As Snow White entreats a higher power (“Our Father, who art in heaven...”), we realise we are in the presence of a fairy-tale heroine whose truck isn't with her godmother but with God. It may be no accident that Ravenna, bearing the cross of womankind, is often sighted with a tiara that tapers into jagged spikes. That's her crown of thorns.

Snow White and the Huntsman

Genre: Fantasy/adventure

Director: Rupert Sanders

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron

Storyline: Snow White flees prison and leads a charge against her evil stepmother.

Bottomline: An okayish update, marred by too many story angles

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English Cinema ReviewsOctober 17, 2011