Monday 11 June 2012

Grimm up north

I'm a Hun. By which I mean: whereas most people in the Anglo-Saxon world first encountered Grimm's fairy-tales through the classic Disney adaptations, Kinder- und Hausmärchen was read to me when I was a wee lad. Astonishingly to those of us who spend a lot of time fretting over what innocent young people's minds might be exposed to, these fairy-tales regularly feature mutilation, blood magic, extravagant gore, infanticide, parricide, matricide - more or less every -cide you could think of, in fact.

I'm thus not terribly impressed with Snow White and the Huntsman's central gimmick, its claim to be a darker and edgier version of the Snow White tale. True, like the revolution the film is hardly a tea party: but considering that unlike the fairy-tale it features neither cannibalism nor anybody being publicly tortured to death it is in fact less vicious than the Brothers Grimm version. That's a flaw only inasmuch as a film advertised as dark and brutal ought not to pull its punches. But an adaptation faithful to the Grimm spirit would be a great many things, conventionally entertaining not among them.

Magnus (Noah Huntley) is a wise and benevolent king until he is killed by his second wife, the beautiful witch Ravenna (Charlize Theron). Snow White, Magnus's daughter from his first marriage, is imprisoned while Ravenna, aided by her brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), rules the kingdom with an iron fist. (Side note: in the first edition of Grimm's fairy-tales, the evil queen is Snow White's biological mother, while later versions turn her into her stepmother.) Years later, the grown Snow White (Kristen Stewart) manages to escape and flees into the Dark Forest, where sensible people fear to tread. Ravenna, anxious to use Snow White's heart to remain young forever, gives the job of hunting the girl down to the drunken, bitter Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), promising to bring his wife back to life.

The Huntsman doesn't take long to lead Finn and his men to Snow White, but when he realises that Ravenna's promise was a lie he turns on his employers and decides to protect the princess instead. After a number of adventures that serve little purpose except to pad the running time, the two run into a band of dwarfs, former miners turned brigands (Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson), as well as Snow White's childhood friend William (Sam Claflin), the son of Duke Hammond (Vincent Regan), the last holdout against Ravenna's reign. After surviving a poisoned apple, Snow White decides to take the reins and lead an army against Ravenna's castle.

Snow White and the Huntsman may be horrendously broken in ways we'll get to, but it has absolutely gorgeous costume design courtesy of the great Colleen Atwood (of Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow). And though some of the production design is questionable (did Snow White really need the White Tree of Gondor on her shield?), all in all Dominic Watkins, David Warren and their team do a terrific job of creating a consistently moody fantasy world with some unique touches. (Whoever came up with the moss-covered reptiles needs to be hired for every single production right now.) It's a shame that Greig Fraser's rote cinematography can't keep up with those chaps, or that first-time director Rupert Sanders otherwise provides little evidence of the lavish $170 million budget he got to play with.

Well then: that script. All in all, the story is perfectly acceptable, a fine attempt to turn the fairy-tale into a medieval fantasy narrative. But the final screenplay credited to Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock and Hossein Amini is painfully overstuffed. There is a scene involving a village only inhabited by women, a battle against a bridge troll and an encounter with a forest spirit nicked from Mononoke-hime, all of them just padding; more seriously, whole characters (most obviously Claflin's William) could be cut without harming the story in the least. All that dead weight stretching the film to 127 minutes isn't just irritating, it also ruins the pacing. Snow White and the Huntsman just stumbles from one thing that happens to another, without ever developing more than a simulacrum of the expected emotional arc. Oh, the required scenes - stirring speeches! tender kisses! ferocious swordfights! - are there, they just don't have the intended impact in a film so drunkenly off-kilter.

Against those odds actors can only do so much. Stewart and Hemsworth do what they do best; Theron's performance, terrific at first, gradually becomes less effective as the film wears on. The real problem is tone. If you want to be a dark, grown-up fantasy film, you really can't delve into 'little people are funny!' humour every once in a while, a lesson the Lord of the Rings films taught us a decade ago; and if it so happens that your all-star cast of dwarfs is far and away the best part of the film (seriously, I'd watch a spin-off about little Ian McShane & Friends any day), you might consider altering the whole project accordingly. As it is, Snow White and the Huntsman lands uncomfortably in cinematic no man's land.

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