Cinematic adaptations of fairytales deviate between light camp and dark, gothic style. The former is on show in Disney adaptations of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, whilst the latter has alternately been played straight (Ridley Scott’s Legend), reworked for contemporary significance (A Tale In Terror’s historical twist on Snow White, featuring Sigourney Weaver’s Evil Queen); or given a knowing postmodern edge (Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm; Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood). Two new versions of the Snow White story, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, mostly avoid the clever-clever territory of Hardwicke and Gilliam’s films, whilst demonstrating both the potential and the pitfalls of light and dark approach to the same material.
Mirror Mirror, which some found charming for its lurid pomp, ultimately struggled for gravity amidst all the confection on show, and very nearly collapsed under its own frivolousness. Snow White and the Huntsman, on the other hand, offers an entirely different proposition, pitting Kristen Stewart’s Snow White against Charlize Theron’s Ravenna in a dark world extraordinarily imagined by debut director Rupert Sanders. With an aesthetic that will draw inevitable comparisons to Mordor and the series Game of Thrones, his is a medieval world full of death and decay, whose evil queen toys with dead animals and quite literally sucks the life out of her subjects.
Such a pitch, especially in a summer blockbuster released by Universal, is something of a surprise, and represents the film’s major strength. Sanders, a commercials director by background, clearly has a phenomenal eye, and he creates an utterly stylish world. The shame, ultimately, is that the only one who seems up to the dramaticism of the scenery is Theron, who tears it up as Ravenna, offering a suitably maniacal portrayal of a woman who sees the retention of her beauty as the source of her power. Her bathing in white liquid and crawling out of a pit of black oil are two of the film’s most striking visions of power and frailty.
The rest of Snow White and the Huntsman, unfortunately, is a little less striking. After a suitably harrowing opening involving the murder of her father and her imprisonment, Stewart’s Snow White escapes to embark on a Lord of the Rings style adventure romp. Meeting a variety of colourful characters, such as Chris Hemswoth’s drunken huntsman, and a the obligatory dwarves, who are played by a who’s who of gruff British acting talent (Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost et al), the majority of the film is a quest to discover her true identity as the saviour of her people.
Stewart brings her usual doe-eyed vulnerability to a role, a tone that works well in the film’s opening half, and her chemistry with Chris Hemsworth is also charming enough. The problem, ultimately, is a story arc that requires a Joan of Arc type transformation for its heroine, one that Stewart, whether due to script or performance, cannot lift beyond the humdrum. As the film spirals from the intriguingly strange to stock action territory, many characters and storylines – especially the dwarves –are left underdeveloped. It is only Theron who manage to hold on to the strangeness that originally makes the film such an arresting experience, leaving Snow White and the Huntsman as an enter taining, inventive trawl through a well worn story that also effectively erects an enormous signpost pointing towards greater potential; with Theron going one way, Stewart the other.