The Grimm Brothers meet Miyazaki and Tolkien while Charlize Theron meets utter fierceness in the dark, alluring Snow White and the Huntsman.
WARNING: FLASHING CURSOR ON THE SCREEN, THERE MAY BE MILD SPOILERS SEEN!
The Kingdom is in distress, ruled with an iron fist and a venomous heart by the wicked Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Years earlier, she married then killed King Magnus (Noah Huntley) and imprisoned his daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a tower. Ravenna wields powerful black magic, which she fuels by draining the beauty of other women. When Snow White comes of age, Ravenna learns that devouring Snow’s heart will grant her immortality. However, Snow escapes before Ravenna can do the deed, so the Queen sends a reluctant Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down. Upon meeting her, the Huntsman instead joins forces with her, a band of dwarves and the few citizens willing to risk their lives in order to finally end Ravenna’s reign of terror.
Not exactly what you’d call a “meet-cute.”
In what has become a far-too-common occurrence in modern cinema, dueling films based on the same property have come out within months of each other. In this case, Snow White and the Huntsman follows the release of the other Snow White movie, Tarsem’s action/comedy Mirror, Mirror. Other than sharing a common source and a few minor plot details, Huntsman couldn’t be more different. Whereas Mirror was light and glossy, Huntsman is dark and dramatic, mining the Grimm Brothers’ classic fairy tale for the shadows at its core.
Helmed by British commercial director Rupert Sanders and written by Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini, Huntsman is an alluring, at times dreamlike, film that highlights the dark edges that most adaptations of the story only hint at or ignore altogether. The Dark Forest outside the castle walls isn’t just dark. It’s a desolate place of decay and despair, littered with hallucinogenic spores meant to entrap visitors in their own fears. Ravenna’s subjects similarly reflect the land’s erosion with their gaunt faces and desperate struggle for any scraps Ravenna tosses from on high. Even Ravenna herself must destroy others to maintain not only her magic, but her youth and beauty as well. This is not a land of singing birds and glass coffins. Snow White even escapes the castle through a sewage drain.
Milk. It does a wicked queen good.
Such a take on the Snow White story requires a revision of the characters, as well, and Huntsman turns a character commonly seen (thanks to Disney) as an archaic, submissive stereotype into a fiercely resourceful young woman who ends up becoming her own rescuer. Her relationship with the Huntsman is clearly a teacher/student connection, albeit an affectionate one, while her romance with Prince William (Sam Claflin) is wisely downplayed. Sanders and the writers narrowly avoid the near-obligatory “love triangle” subplot that muddied up the recent Red Riding Hood, focusing instead on Snow’s quest to discover herself and how she relates to the kingdom and its people.
Kristen Stewart does a fantastic job as Snow, although part of this may be lowered expectations due to her prominent association with the banal Twilight series. Stewart is a much better actress than people give her credit for. In the end, it isn’t her fault that Bella Swan has about as much depth as a stick figure line drawing. She can only do what’s in her abilities with the material she’s given, and even the best actress in the world would face an uphill challenge transcending Stephanie Myers’ weak characterizations. However, Stewart’s given much meatier material here, and she seems to relish the chance to be the dynamic force in the film, instead of the passive center, best exemplified by an inspirational monologue she gives that starts out in a shaky whisper and ends in a defiant, triumphant roar that nearly makes the audience want to stand up and charge into battle with her.
Snow of Arc.
Chris Hemsworth faces a slightly similar challenge, best known for playing the bombastic superhero Thor, and he succeeds well in playing against that type. The Huntsman (who is never given a proper name) is a broken, self-destructive man, escaping his grief over the loss of his wife through drink and gambling. He hints at a past that seems to involve a similarly self-destructive, Crusades-like war, and it’s only through his association with Snow White that he rediscovers hope for the future. Thankfully, the word “love” is never spoken between Snow and the Huntsman, and there is no obvious romantic ties between the two. The relationship instead grows organically as the Huntsman sees parts of himself in Snow that he’s suppressed, and Snow realizes through the Huntsman the power that can come through coping with loss.
The dwarves, sadly, don’t get as much screen time as they probably deserve, but they are also not the focus of the film. Played by a who’s who collection of British character actors like Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Nick Frost and Ray Winstone shrunk down Gimli-style, they’re not given much to do, but still have distinct personalities. Sadly, some of their dialogue is muddled by some accents that seem too theatrically thick, and it’s possible that a lot of their portion of the film was cut to focus on Snow’s fight against the Queen. Thankfully, like the film’s treatment of the Huntsman, the dwarves never follow Snow out of love, but out of hope, knowing that she’s the only way to reclaim the land that was taken from them.
Axe. It does a huntsman good.
The true star of the movie, however, is Charlize Theron’s fierce, villainously fabulous Queen Ravenna. Clearly modeled after Elizabeth Bathory, Ravenna may be the cruelest depiction of the Wicked Queen archetype in recent memory. Vicious and without remorse, everything she does is to secure the power she has, by any means necessary. Her power lies in her beauty, something that remains unquestioning until the day her magic mirror informs her that Snow White has surpassed her as the fairest in the land. Once she sees Snow as the first genuine threat to her power, she does everything she can to destroy her. Despite this, Ravenna is a very human character, her cruelty motivated by self-doubt and an unquenched vengeance for the men who have wronged her, and by her own logical extension, all women everywhere. It’s revealed that only Ravenna can speak with or see the being in the magic mirror, which seems to be a death’s shroud made of liquid gold, suggesting that the mirror itself may be simply a mundane extension of Ravenna’s own insecurities. Theron tears into the role with enthusiasm, never crossing over into camp. She has a clear grasp on Ravenna’s motivations and secrets and every moment is filed with conviction. Simply put, she’s fascinating to watch and ranks among Theron’s most memorable and entertaining performances.
The female of the species is deadlier than the male.
The film itself is similarly mesmerizing, with Sanders creating a lush visual world that still seems real and tactile, lacking the glossy sheen of films like Mirror, Mirror. The castle walls are not gleaming, and the only person in a stunning gown is Ravenna herself (thanks to the award-winning Colleen Atwood). The only points of brightness come during scenes set in Sanctuary, a faerie realm as yet untouched by Ravenna’s poisonous reign. Sanctuary is clearly modeled after the works of Hayao Miyazaki, stag-leaping from inspiration straight into homage. It’s especially indebted to Princess Mononoke, which may be Sanders’ way of highlighting the film’s larger themes of wholeness and consequence. While not an ecological allegory like that film, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities. Ravenna uses power for her own end and for her own benefit, and the land spoils. Snow White seeks to use her power to benefit all, and the land in response blooms. Indeed, it could be said that Snow is the land itself, as she was born after her mother pricked herself on the thorn of a rose and made a wish for a daughter as drops of blood landed on the ground.
This is further strengthened by the duality found in the relationship between Ravenna and Snow. The two are different sides of the same coin, studies on how power can corrupt or how it can inspire. Ravenna puts herself first, Snow puts others first. Ravenna uses her beauty as a weapon, while Snow seems largely unaware of her own beauty. Ravenna is a manifestation of the power of the physical, while Snow is the power of emotion. Neither woman is wholly good or wholly evil. Flashbacks to Ravenna’s past reveal tragedies that have taught her to protect herself by dominating those around her, while Snow doesn’t hesitate to don armor and lead a near-suicidal charge on Ravenna’s castle. This is why Ravenna decides to imprison the young Snow White, instead of kill her immediately. The two are bound in ways that neither one can fully comprehend, just as both are seemingly bound to land around them, like one spirit split into light and dark halves.
Snow White: Troll Whisperer.
The film does seem oddly bereft at times, as if portions of the journey were cut for time. The near-incestuous, possibly mystical relationship between Ravenna and her brother is never fully explored, and once William and Snow are reunited, William is essentially shunted aside by the rising action. Although it’s nice not to have the romantic angle dominate Snow White for once, Sam Claflin is a fine prince, a daring rogue that could give Legloas a run for his money in the archery department (and not too hard on the eyes, either) and deserved better treatment. The climatic battle seems slight, despite its build-up, almost like an afterthought, the scenes of military struggles never as fascinating as the Huntsman and others fighting warriors made of obsidian shards powered by Ravenna’s dark magic.
Talking to the man in the mirror.
The film would be served better by inserting more character development and backstory, but as it stands, it’s a gorgeous epic, more a myth than a fairy tale. It’s informed by modern sensibilities, but it’s firmly rooted in traditional fantasy. There’s no irony or satire, but there’s also no melodrama or crushing sense of self-importance. This is a classic, rousing fantasy adventure that happens to also share plot points with the tale of Snow White. Underneath its CGI and legendary trappings, though, it’s a study of the power of beauty and femininity that has thrilling set pieces to accompany Theron’s admittedly fabulous fashions. This is what happens when faerie tales are taken for the explorations of the human game that they truly are.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
JOHNNY M (aka Snarky the Dwarf) is a frequent FBOTU contributor and the fairest in the land.