Thursday 31 May 2012

Fairest-to-middling of them all: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

At a loss for original ideas, Hollywood again finds itself with two rival studios scrapping over the same old story. Snow White and the Huntsman is very much the po-faced Deep Impact to April's flip and joshing Mirror Mirror's Armageddon. A serious and sombre "re-envisioning" of the fairytale myth, this is Snow White as it might be told in the wake of Batman Begins, with something of the heavily armored TV hit Game of Thrones in the mix. The eponymous heroine's lips will come to be bloodied by a power struggle between those who've been hurt by love and those young enough not yet to know of this hurt - though, this being a product of the 21st-century American entertainment industry, it's no real surprise which faction will eventually be crowned the victor.

A prologue has a warrior king falling for the fair maiden he's rescued from the back of a stolen carriage; as our growly narrator informs us, "he married her the next day", only to have his heart physically ripped out on his wedding night, which only goes to show you shouldn't rush into these things. The ripper in question is Ravenna (Charlize Theron), a vain sort allotted the rationale of the jilted lover: she does to men what men have done to her - figuratively, if not literally - in the past. Still, she proves somewhat discriminate in her retribution: her first moves, once installed in a position of power, are to imprison the King's beautiful daughter Snow White (Raffey Cassidy as a girl, Kristen Stewart as a teenager) and to suck the life out of another pretty serf, played by Lily Cole, at which point the audience collectively comes to the conclusion that, whoa, this is one wicked stepmama.

If we've learnt anything from this double-dip of Snow White adaptations, it's that this legend presents a particular field day for cinematographers and costume designers. SWATH (for it is thus) never looks less than terrific: gorgeous enough that it should feel confident to remove Lily Cole from the action after barely a minute of screen time, gorgeous enough that it's being released without the image-sullying 3D with which the major Hollywood studios now routinely adorn their prestige family offerings. In a week when it was announced that the forthcoming G.I. Joe 2 was, at the very last of very last minutes, being sent back to the kitchen to be retrofitted in this manner, this last is not to be taken lightly: in a landscape dominated by clanky, titanium superhero movies, SWATH arrives as a breath of comparatively fresh air, returning us to the lush forestry of the Lord of the Rings movies after Snow White escapes her captors, first tailed, then aided by a notionally hunky huntsman (Thor's Chris Hemsworth).

The director, Rupert Sanders, hails from the ad world, and knows when to reach for the picturebook imagery - as when his camera finds Snow White lying supine in a tangle of tree branches - but his specialty is gooey or otherwise liquid textures. The mirror this time round melts and advances across the floor in a shiny pool, recalling the metallurgy of The Abyss and Terminator 2; Theron's similarly shapeshifting Ravenna emerges from a roadkill of squashed ravens, and bathes in a tub filled to the brim with asses' milk as thick as white Dulux. Other marvels include the dwarves, played by (for some counter-intuitive reason, eight) full-size actors - Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson - who've been digitally shrunk more or less to scale. (Memorise their names, as they're bound to come up in a pub quiz some time.)

The rest, however, is one of those half-and-half jobs Hollywood hopes to get away with every now and again. There's a sense the filmmakers are trying to open up and do something novel within this world, heightened by the casting of actresses who might very well bring an additional savvy and intelligence to this material, but both Stewart and Theron increasingly find themselves with nothing much to do, except to move forwards or stay put as required. Cast for a scream so defiant it might stop a troll in its tracks, Stewart makes an offbeat, attitudinous Snow White - it'd be easy to imagine Anne Hathaway, say, offering a rather more Disneyfied reading of the role - but all the running around prevents any real character from coming through.

Theron - in what's proving to be a real banner year for her, with Young Adult and this week's Prometheus - is as imperious in places as she's been allowed to be on screen for some time, working wonders with a slight incline of the head or flaring of the nostrils; the pity is that - in sending others to do all her dirty work for her - she should be stuck on the sidelines for much of the film, without so much as a poisoned apple to play with. Instead, the focus shifts onto an underheated love triangle between Thor, SW and the latter's childhood sweetheart (Sam Claflin, as forgettable here as he was in the last Pirates of the Caribbean), and as we sense the film chasing after the Twilight dollar, interest slips away. This Snow's heart, perhaps yearning for sequels, remains unresolved at the end of these two hours, but it doesn't exactly feel like a progression she should have to share equal billing with a huntsman, or that the audience should come away from a notionally revisionist version of this legend remembering only the look of the thing.

Snow White and the Huntsman is in cinemas nationwide.

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