Starring Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth • Directed by Rupert Sanders• Age restriction: 13MV • Releases 1 June
A golden mirror, hints at incest, a violent ragtag band of (eight) dwarves and a Joan of Arc-inspired heroine: Snow White and the Huntsman is no Disney fairytale.
Rupert Sanders – a British television commercial director who boasts Nike, Axe, Halo and Call of Duty as brands on his resume – makes his feature film debut on this adaptation of the classic fairy tale. It is ambitious in scope, promising a level of epic-ness that it does not quite reach – but my, is it fun to watch it try.
This is not the first adaptation of Snow White that we have seen these year (we suffered through Tarsem Singh's achingly bad Mirror Mirror in April) – but it is the better of the two.
In Snow White and the Huntsman, the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) kills her new husband and takes over his kingdom, locking his beautiful young daughter Snow White (Kristen Stewart) away in a tower. The years pass as the kingdom falls into ruin – but as Snow White comes of age, Ravenna's magic mirror prophesises that the girl is destined by "fairest of them all" and could be the queen's undoing. Ravenna orders her brother to kill Snow White and bring her the girl's heart – but Snow White manages to escape and flee to the Dark Forest. Ravenna's magic has no power there, and so she summons a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to track her down and bring her back.
The film, without a doubt, belongs to Charlize Theron. Painfully beautiful, completely unhinged and full of contradictions and complexities, her take on Ravenna – who maintains her eternal youth by sucking the life-force from the young and beautiful – is deliciously evil and endlessly fascinating. Clothed in exquisite, gothic gowns by Oscar-winning Chicago costume designer Colleen Atwood, Theron's every movement drips with opulence and dramatic textures – silver scales, raven-black feathers, spiked crowns– and she is breath-taking to behold. Hers is, by far, the most fascinating character in the film – and while Ravenna's back-story is ultimately revealed, I could have watched an entire film dedicated to her and her life.
And of course, "the fairest of them all", Snow White is played by Twilight Saga alumnus Kristen Stewart. Don't hold that against her, though – she's a talented actress who has suffered through four films of some of awful writing (that would be the Twilight Saga). Her Snow White is part traditional princess, part Joan of Arc-style talisman – the obvious Good to Ravenna's Evil. And Stewart carries it all with good grace for the bulk of the film – bar one cringe-worthy Aragorn-at-the-gates-of-Mordor pep talk for the army she has assembled. She's convincing enough with her faux British accent and is beautiful and amiable enough – but pales in the face of Theron's performance.
This film belongs wholly to its women – and is packed with a powerful feminist kick – but supporting actors Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman), Sam Spruell as Ravenna's brother Finn (their relationship echoes the incestuous Jamie/Cersei union of Game of Thrones) and Sam Claflin (Prince William) provide solid springboards for Theron and Stewart to bounce themselves off. Hemsworth, in particular, adds rugged, rural charm to a nuanced and tender performance as the drunken, widowed Huntsman – who, dispatched to fetch Snow White from the Dark Forest, abruptly switches sides.
And the dwarves? Well, we start off with eight – a core group of fine British actors that includes Ian McShane, Nick Frost and Ray Winstone who are manipulated to dwarf-size through CGI. Some of the best and wittiest writing is – as always in a Snow White adaptation – reserved for the dwarves, and they were a crowd favourite at the preview screening.
Snow White and the Huntsman takes a while to get off the mark, with the first fifth of the filming feeling disjointed – as if, in a rush to establish the film's narrative, the writers tried to cram in as many moments as possible. Here! Meet this guy! He'll be important later! Ooh, now her! Remember her! It's a jarring start – but as Snow White breaks free from the tower, so too the film finds its feet and the narrative gains some stride.
In an attempt perhaps to shed the ghost of Walt Disney's iconic 1937 version – with its happy-go-lucky dwarves and a domestic princess – Sanders and his team of writers attempt to introduce greater levels of complexity and grittiness. The grittiness works – but the complexity, at times, runs off without the film's writers. There are subplots left unresolved, characters simply begging for just a little more establishment and various logical steps missing. But, with a running time clocking in at over two hours already, it is difficult to decide where those extra pivotal moments would have fitted in.
Perhaps as Sanders tries to find his style, Snow White and the Huntsman pulls inspiration from a number of different fantasy favourites. Ravenna's character channels Michelle Pfeiffer's in Stardust, shots are lifted straight out of The Lord of the Rings and even the film's set design – intentional or not – echoes HBO's hit series Game of Thrones.
From start to finish, Snow White and the Huntsman is a visual delight and is strikingly designed, with an eye to the smallest details. From the immense, gothic castle to the evil – somehow intelligent – Dark Forest, the world is dark and shadowed, clearly ruled by an evil force.
But easily one of the highlights of the film is the time Snow White and her companions spend in what the dwarves call the Sanctuary. Imbued with a strong sense of "Disney magic", I wished Sanders would slow the camera down so that I could drink in all the sights. From the Sanctuary's fairies – waifish, wingless creatures with the most beautiful blue eyes to butterflies that form flowers and a heart-stoppingly beautiful sequence with the White Hart, it channels Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in its purest, most beautifully bizarre form. Accompanied by a moving score by James Newton Howard (who has worked on The Hunger Games, Salt and Water for Elephants), Snow White and the Huntsman is a sensory delight.
Undeniably beautiful, Snow White and the Huntsman is not without its flaws – but it's still entertaining enough to warrant a trip to the cinema. Even if it's just for Charlize.