Famed is Thy Beauty, by David Bax
It’s summer in America. This is the time of year that (even more so than in other times of year), movie studios think we’re stupid. One of the ways they betray their low opinion of us is by putting out films nominally tied to an existing property – under the assumption that the familiarity will get us in the theater – but which, in reality, often have little to do with their source. Keep an eye out for Untitled Southern Action Comedy/Dukes of Hazzard Reboot in cinemas next summer! So when it became known that a commercial director named Rupert Sanders would be making a gothic action fantasy film called Snow White and the Huntsman, it would make perfect sense for you to have rolled your eyes and made a preemptive decision to stay home from the theater that weekend. Fortunately, you’ve got me to tell you that you may have – we all may have – been a little hasty. Not only does Snow White and the Hunstman not make a lazy swipe at your wallet, it achieves being simply a damned good film.
The story unfolds essentially the way you remember it. A queen gives birth to a beautiful daughter with skin white as snow, lips red as blood and hair black as ebony. The queen dies. The king is remarried to a resplendent but vain woman. The king dies. The new queen tries to have the young girl killed. Then the girl makes friends with a bunch of dwarves. Also, there’s a magic talking mirror and, at one point, a poisoned apple.
So familiar is this outline to us that we could conceivably reinterpret it in any number of genres. In fact, we already have. There are horror films (1997’s Snow White: A Tale of Terror), coming-of-age stories (2007’s Sydney White) and whatever the hell this year’s Mirror Mirror was supposed to be. This new film, however, comes closest to how I imagine the original fairy tale in its style. Characters are generally either good or bad and the world is a placed filled simultaneously with magical wonder and frightening, deadly danger. The visual symbolism is constant and far from subtle. The evil queen dresses mostly in black and is surrounded by death, from the animals whose feathers and pelts supply her wardrobe to the actual dead bodies of innocent villagers strewn about her chamber. Snow White herself escapes the bleak and decrepit castle to a land that is the color of grass and flowers. The straightforward morality of the film makes it possible that what we’re seeing is less a fairy tale and more a fable. The people represent philosophies; the settings represent the people and their situation (the crops die when the queen takes power). It’s like Aesop by way of the German expressionists.
No such expressionist came to mind more when watching Snow White and the Huntsman than Fritz Lang. Not only is the gorgeous and fantastic detail of the piece reminiscent of Lang’s proto-nerdiness but the story of strong warriors beset by a forest of evils and creatures reminds one of no less than the director’s two-part silent epic Die Nibelungen. Though he may be revered now almost solely by arthouse-goers, it’s easy to make an argument that, were he working with today’s technology and budget, this is precisely the kind of film Lang would be making.
Die Nibelungen was made during Germany’s dark decade following World War I. The story of Snow White, though likely older than we know for sure, is best known from the version popularized by the Brothers Grimm in the waning years of the Napoleonic Wars. Here and now in the United States, our wars may be taking place far away but the prevailing fear of attack and the expansion of government power that has come as a result has made daily life an anxious and perilous state. We have become fractured into bitter camps. In an election year, when it may be naïve to hold out for a single figure of hope around whom all good people can rally, it makes sense that we might allow ourselves that dream within the safety of a movie.
Snow may have top billing in the film’s title but it’s not really about her. It’s not really about the huntsman, either (or at least, not specifically). Rather, it’s about the huntsman, the dwarves, Snow’s childhood friend, William and everyone else who has lived for years under the queen’s tyrannical and cannibalistic rule. These are people for whom it is a victory to merely sustain. The thought of triumph has been worn out of them. The huntsman drinks. The dwarves steal. William and his people keep the gates shut. Slowly, over the course of the film’s long second act, they find hope within themselves because the very presence of Snow brings it out of them. Sanders takes no small measures in describing these changes by altering the landscape from ash gray to springtime green. Here, as in other effects-heavy sections, the results are beautiful. While the cost of a movie isn’t something I take into account when forming my opinion, I don’t mind saying that this thing looks very expensive and in a good way.
Just as lovely as the flowers and butterflies, though much more chilling, are the locations in and around the evil queen’s castle. Walls are ensnared in the roots of trees and their grasp is no less tight simply because these trees seem to be dead. The forest contains monsters, some real and some forced into the imagination by the overbearing power of the foreboding wood. Fittingly, when circumstances force the characters to fight, the action is as compelling as its setting. These are well-staged fights and well-acted, where the individuals and their motivations are not lost in the melee.
Much of the fighting is done by the huntsman, played by Chris Hemsworth in what is undoubtedly the film’s strongest performance. His proven ability to be good in movies that mostly place the audience’s attention on the spectacular and not the human is the stuff that makes movie stars. The actors portraying the dwarves provide more onscreen chops, being made up of a cast that would be enticing all on their own. Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone and Nick Frost all appear as diminutive guides and helpers. Another British actor, Sam Spruell, is chilling and almost disturbingly human as the queen’s violent brother.
Unfortunately for such a female-centric film, the lesser performances are all attributable to the cast’s women. Kristen Stewart simply does not possess the strength of presence necessary for a role that is meant to galvanize everyone around her. Charlize Theron, meanwhile, confounds those who, like me, found some of her recent work in films such as Young Adult so strong. She is not just playing to the back row. She might be playing to the people working at the concession stand. While this is certainly a film that calls for forceful acting, she appears to be lashing out in the wrong direction.
Another discordant note is the movie’s humor. Perhaps we’re supposed to laugh at the introduction of the huntsman but a drunk being thrown out of a pub for not paying his bill feels like the first scene of every rapscallion anti-hero in cinema history. And a couple of the dwarves make a few too many scatological references for my taste.
Luckily, there are very few attempts at comedy in the movie. It’s the rare film that doesn’t need them. Rupert Sanders, in his feature debut, has made something that is breathtaking to look at, refreshingly contemplative and rousing in the way an action epic should be. Snow White and the Huntsman, if not the best film to come out of a major studio this year, is the most surprisingly nourishing one.