It is difficult to imagine a more violent and macabre set of stories than the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. Birds peck women’s eyes out, girls cut toes off to fit a shoe and lovers find each other only to be torn away by the chiming of midnight bells. And that’s only Cinderella. It is easy to forget these gruesome parts of the narrative in the face of Disney movies and retellings of retellings. Luckily for those few but proud Grimm purists, director Rupert Sanders remains true to the aforesaid sinister undertones in his new movie Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron. Whether the movie is worth the price of a theater ticket is debatable, but one cannot help but laud the gloomy and ominous atmosphere Sanders manages to create.
The unnamed fantasy setting is as savage and cruel as the evil queen Ravenna (Theron), who usurps the throne and imprisons Snow White (Stewart), the princess who manages to escape and befriend the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) who is sent to kill her. The aptly named Dark Forest not only maliciously glares upon anyone who enters, but also induces frightening hallucinations. Birds claw and tear at Snow White’s face, large black beetles swarm around her and large snakes appear on tree limbs and bare their fangs. The sound effects only enhance the terrifying scene; one feels as if the beetles were clicking their pincers and crawling their way up one’s leg rather than merely watching the horror happening to someone else. The villages are far from orderly hamlets. Mud clogs the roadsides, houses look more like makeshift tents that will fall apart at a moment’s notice and the sun never shines on the villagers.
Even Sanctuary, the part of the forest that belongs to the fairies, is not completely safe. While the vibrant greens, reds and blues of the vegetation and the butterflies that saturate the air are beautiful, the otherworldly quality of the landscape, enhanced by the superb CGI, does not allow for comfort, and the mirage is easily shattered when Ravenna’s henchmen track Snow White down. The landscapes look like Romantic paintings: awful and frightening in their wild and terrible beauty. But what one remembers most are the large swathes of empty land with only a blackened tree stump here and there, demonstrating Ravenna’s destructive powers.
Theron’s performance adds to this frightening fictive world. After the king saves her from a prison of her own making, her sweet, blue gaze quickly becomes wide-eyed insanity. Power, anger and fear permeate her voice as she seductively whispers in a prisoner’s ear right before she stops his heart or when she roars at her brother Finn for allowing Snow White to escape. Ravenna’s icy queenliness is also evident in her ramrod-straight posture and placid face that only give way to extreme anger or fear. Her costumes, while beautiful, contain spikes and chain mail-like bodices that turn her body into a formidable fortress.
Sanders provides a welcome reprieve from the usual black-and-white dichotomy rampant in fairy tale movies. Ravenna is an antagonist who has her own demons to battle; her queenly posturing hides a frightened and weary soul. Ravenna’s childhood was stolen by men who used her. Her beauty never brings her any happiness but is merely a tool and it remains her curse as well as her pride. Her tears of joy when the mirror mistakenly pronounces Snow White dead are marred by the absolute terror in her eyes. When her brother dies, Ravenna’s physical ailments compromise her beauty. Her already-withering body shrinks to almost nothing, and her frame is wracked by convulsions as she begs Finn to forgive her for failing to protect him.
Sadly, the detailed world building and Theron’s masterful performance cannot save Snow White and the Huntsman from mediocrity. Hemsworth deserves to be commended for his portrayal of a grief-stricken widower; his eyes are constantly clouded by drink and pain. But nothing can offset Kristen Stewart’s painfully embarrassing performance, however. Her look of mild surprise in her half-closed eyes and constantly agape mouth are perhaps appropriate for a girl who has spent most of her life in a tower sheltered from the outside world, but such histrionics are ridiculous and disconcerting for a young woman who will supposedly inspire her country to follow her into battle against the fearsome queen.
Stewart’s lackluster performance aside, the film is further weighed down by massive failures of logic. As in the fairy tale, everyone from the huntsman to the dwarves to the creatures in the forest believes in Snow White instantaneously. Why should anyone believe that she is the princess that supposedly died long ago? And why should a girl who has been imprisoned for most of her life be more of an able ruler than the current one?
Snow White does herself no favors; the few times she does speak are to beg for help and to deliver an allegedly inspiring speech that Stewart completely butchers by turning it into an angry rant. Why two strong, able-bodied men would fall in love with her is also highly questionable. While she dons armor and takes up a sword towards the end of the film, one spends the whole time wondering when she found the time to undertake the years of training required to wield such a weapon.
While visually stunning, Snow White and the Huntsman fails to develop the original characters in any compelling and meaningful way. While the evil queen is fascinating, her past could have been much more developed considering the lengthy and unnecessary battle scenes that seemed to be cut and pasted from The Lord of the Rings. Hemsworth does an adequate job with his character, but deserved a larger part of the narrative as well. Perhaps it was too much to expect that Stewart pull off a competent job, but her performance was weak to say the least. These faults combined destroyed what could have been a wonderful new adaptation of a well-loved fairy tale.