The latest version of the German fairytale stays close enough to the story we know – but makes some interesting changes, finds Ada Nkechi
The fairytale Snow White is the subject of not one but two cinematic adaptations this year. But Snow White and the Huntsman treads a darker path to Mirror Mirror. The first full-length film by director Rupert Sanders is a strong debut. All the expected archetypal images from the familiar story are there, but Sanders also delivers beauty, truth and power.
The fairy tale as it has come down to us via the Brothers Grimm opens with a queen who wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony and lips as red as roses. The queen dies soon after this dream daughter, Snow White, is born. The bereaved king hastily marries a classic ‘wicked stepmother’, a woman obsessed with her own beauty. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” the new queen asks daily and the mirror confirms that she is unrivalled in the kingdom. One day, the mirror declares Snow White, her now-grown stepdaughter, has surpassed her. Enraged, the queen hires a huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart. The huntsman pities Snow White and she escapes, taking shelter with a band of dwarves in the forest. The queen repeatedly tries to kill her in disguise, once with the iconic poisoned apple. A bite of this makes Snow White sleep until a prince kisses her and she wakes to life and love with him. The tale ends with a wedding at which the queen meets a suitably grim end.
The film is visually evocative to match the tale’s content. The whole experience is beautifully shot with black, white and red as recurring thematic colours and later lush greens and yellows that break through the stark palette. Texture, liquidity and a living natural environment are wonderfully created, particularly in the Dark Forest, where so much of the original takes place, and under the evil queen Ravenna’s dark reign, a place of poisonous magic, carrion birds and jagged obsidian.
Unlike the original, the nub of the film is not the beauty of the title character: her looks do not power the film as they do the tale. Chris Hemsworth‘s Huntsman even says: “Don’t flatter yourself” to Snow White as he tears her hindering skirts so they can get through the treacherous forest. And yet, you will spend a significant number of the 127 minutes drinking in Kristen Stewart from every angle, intimately shot, wide eyed and as jet, pale and ruddy as the ‘fairest of them all’ could be.
The point is neither the desperation of a woman striving to save her beautiful face as time takes its toll. Yet Ravenna, the evil stepmother and queen played by Charlize Theron, is magnetic to look at, as any enchantress would be.
Although there is a strong template for it, Snow White and the Huntsman is not a love story either. It would have been easy to make romance central but to the director’s credit, he does not. In case you were wondering, the domestic service that Grimms’ Snow White offers to the dwarves in return for shelter is also omitted.
What powers the plot is the question of what to do with one’s personal power in a universe of random violence and inequality. Through this, Sanders brings out psychological depth of the characters, making them more believable and this retelling memorable.
Do you strike back, like young warrior William (played by Sam Claflin), Snow White’s childhood playmate? Do you become reclusive and provide sanctuary for those who come to you for refuge, like Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan), William’s father? Do you drown what power you have in drinking and drudgery, like the huntsman and the dwarves? Do you diminish your value to the powers-that-be and hope to remain under their radar, as one all-female community does? Or do you take arms with what you have and preserve yourself, at any cost, from those who would take your life?
We learn that Ravenna started out as a peasant girl. She learnt to survive at all cost. “Your beauty is all that you have,” her mother tells her as an army besets their village. And she’s right. The child is dragged off by soldiers as her mother’s screams ring in her ears: “Avenge us!” Ravenna is the dainty of kings, and learns to use her beauty and sexual power to unmake kingdoms. “If a woman stays young and beautiful forever, the world is hers,” she spits at the unsuspecting King Magnus (Noah Huntley), Snow White’s father and her next victim: a misogynistic idea that the actress has likely come across in her Hollywood career.
And how are these choices rewarded? Without spoilers, it’s hard to say, but as one might suspect, mirroring the behaviour of your tyrannical oppressors as Ravenna does spreads stagnation and suffering. Lust for power or beauty, interchangeable in this universe, can never be sated. It is ravenous, destructive and deathly, and will not go unchecked forever.
Charlize Theron’s performance is the best part of this enjoyable film. Her relationship with her brother Finn, played by Sam Spruell, is the most moving in the whole story.
Kristen Stewart cuts a more sympathetic figure than perhaps she has done so far in her career – but still, her character feels watery next to the force of Theron, the bulk of Hemsworth, the loyalty of Spruell or even the comedy of the dwarves.
The psychological truth behind Snow White’s general patheticness? She has traumatically lost both parents and been locked away since childhood under the usurping queen’s orders. Still, even after that trauma I imagine she’d have more to say for herself than Stewart does. The most disappointing is the contrast between Stewart’s rendering, which lacks colour, and the trailers which advertised the film with armour-clad images of the heroine. There is little fight in this warrior princess.
There is humour to be had too. The dwarves, with Bob Hoskins as their spiritual leader (hilarious in itself), lighten the tension but also seem to dilute the urgency and direction of the plot. At the screening I attended, at least three people left the cinema after we first met them. They do their job credibly, fulfilling our fantastical ideas of materialistic and ribald lads you’d want to have on your team. What is more, the Cockney dwarves, unlike the main characters, are as British (and Irish) as they sound. I personally can’t wait for the Year of the Dwarf to continue with the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit in December.
Chris Hemsworth is the common (ladies’) man, gruffly spoken, good with heavy weaponry as seen in Thor and Avengers Assemble, with a heart of gold. Thankfully, the director somewhat allows us to make of him what we choose.
Anyone worried that the film would be a Disney-style approach to the beauty-obsessed, romantic tale we know so well should be relieved. Sanders’ work is a modern approach to a classic (as in ‘old and canonically established’) tale that more than fills the gaps left by the original: it makes all the right omissions too.
All images taken from the SWTH Facebook page ©Universal Pictures.