Monday, September 17, 2012

"Snow White and the Huntsman"-- Beautiful but Miscast

Fairy tales never go out of fashion; a fact that has been made clearer than ever with two retellings of Snow White this year alone. The first, "Mirror Mirror," was cute but no more satisfying than a cream puff filled with the lightest of fillings. I looked forward to Snow White and the Huntsman a little more than "Mirror Mirror" thanks to the casting of Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth but still had expectations too low to motivate me to see the film in the theater. However, if there's anything really great about low expectations it's that they're very easy to exceed. Luckily for me, "Snow White and the Huntsman" did manage to do that.

If "Mirror Mirror" is a cream puff, then I must compare "Snow White and the Huntsman" to a big, colorful trifle.  Visually the movie is just stunning. I almost wish I had seen it on the big screen just because it was so beautiful- and I wouldn't have felt it was a waste of money had taken the time to see it when it first came out. It is by turns Gothic and horrible when set in the dark forest and full of wonder and color when the setting moves to the fairy sanctuary. There are echoes of Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth" "Hellboy") in the spectacle even if it never quite reaches that level of weird. The setting gives it a rich texture and the casting mostly adds to the layering and depth, with one notable exception.

The story of "Snow White" has always been one about vanity. Interpretations vary but the usually accepted tale is one of jealousy on the part of the aging Queen as she sees Snow White surpass her as the "fairest of the all." But "Snow White and the Huntsman" attempts to create a narrative that goes beyond simple envy and bases the Queen's power on her ability to hang on to her youth and beauty. Charlize Theron is a great pick to play Queen Ravenna. She's a stunning woman and audiences need no convincing to believe that she could bewitch the King into marrying her and she doesn't hold back in her performance as a woman who isn't just desperate but completely unhinged. The script offers some back story, however brief, and Theron commits to it fully. I wouldn't say it's fun, precisely, to watch her pace and scream her rage at the other characters and her stridency walks a fine line between believable and wearying to watch. But before that part of the story can be overplayed the plot moves on to the main bulk of the film and focuses on Snow White.

Snow White (Kristen Stewart) spends most of her life imprisoned in a tower after Ravenna kills the King. Her captivity is explained by a throwaway line suggesting that "royal blood" may be useful to Ravenna at some point but it's a flimsy, unconvincing device.  Yet it pales in comparison to the terrible casting of Stewart in the part of Snow White. I haven't been a follower of Stewart's career. I've never had any interest in "Twilight" but I have heard mutterings of Stewart's lackadaisical acting skills and it is a well deserved criticism. There are so many shortcomings in her portrayal it's hard to know where to start...

First off, for a young woman who has spent most of her formative years in a tower, there is no wonder, amazement or horror on her face as she returns to the world after a long absence. Everything is greeted with a slightly quizzical brow and an even slighter smile or frown depending on the circumstances. But I could overlook that flaw as her reactions aren't really written into the script as part of the dialog.  Where the film really falls apart is when it attempts to persuade the audience that Stewart's Snow White possesses a character that captivates all who know her. She's said to virtually glow with purpose and has a charm so strong that even the animals can't help but kneel at her feet. But when William (Sam Claflin) the son of Duke Hammond muses on her beauty and charisma to the Huntsman (Hemsworth) it's laughably out-of-sync with Stewart's performance.

And Stewart only continues to suffer in comparison the more she interacts with the rest of the cast. Hemsworth is the kind of the guy who owns the screen with his masculinity. He doesn't have to have to do much to make you want to watch him and just as he easily conveys Thor's stouthearted goodness in "The Avengers" he is no less adept at conveying his grief at the loss of his wife with little more than a soulful gaze. Part of the plot in "Huntsman" hints at the possibility of a love triangle between Hemsworth, Claflin and Stewart but it's impossible to believe that someone as full of energy as Hemsworth would find the lifeless Stewart appealing. It must be said that the script doesn't do Stewart any favors either. The speech she gives to rally the troops against Ravenna is clunky on its own, but even more awkward when given by Stewart.

The dwarves, always essential to a Snow White story, are present but not integral to the plot. Which is a shame because the casting included Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins- two men I'm always happy to see on screen as long as possible. The apple and the kiss are also there but slightly tweaked to give the film its own unique sensibility and all of it comes together fairly well. The smartest thing about the film is that it doesn't particularly attempt to pit Theron and Stewart against each other in a contest of beauty. Ravenna is really fighting the ravages of time and the threat of Snow White's purity-of-character is really the 'fairest' characteristic that threatens her rule. But when the two women come face-to-face it's hard to think they should have been pitted against each other in any way. Theron is tall, gorgeous and imposing. Stewart is slight of stature and, while very pretty, lacks the forcefulness that Theron conveys so effortlessly. Snow White's defeat of Ravenna is a letdown because it just isn't convincing. You know she'll prevail because the tale of Snow White says she must, but if this story existed in the real world Ravenna would wipe the floor with Snow White.

Ultimately "Snow White and the Huntsman" is a very uneven film. It's beautiful and atmospheric and I could spend all day in its lush setting. Most of the actors do a fine job and if Snow White had been cast with a young woman who could convey some emotion (Jennifer Lawrence or Dakota Fanning for example) it could have really earned the comparisons some have made to films like "Lord of the Rings." But between Stewart's wooden portrayal and a wobbly script the movie can only be said to be passably good, but not great.


adinabb said...

Great review. I haven't seen Snow White and the Huntsman yet but I plan to. I don't expect much, so hopefully I'll enjoy it :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I had heard that STewart was a low point of that film. sounds like it's true. I will probably see it eventually.

Linds said...

Now that it's out to rent, I plan on seeing it, but it was always in spite of Stewart. Who, from the films I've seen, tends to play the same character with the same expressions over and over; though she isn't the only actor guilty of this she always comes off rather flat.

Casting is such an odd balance, but sometimes I wish unknown actors would be cast a bit more often over known names that don't suit the part.

Budd said...

I just watched Mirror Mirror this weekend. Maybe the actresses got mixed up about which snow white movie they were in and the directors just rolled with it. Lily Collins was much better than the rest of Mirror Mirror.

LinWash said...

Great review. I had planned to skip this movie entirely, though I like Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth. But your comments about the cinematography intrigue me. I'm glad I can rent it though.

SQT said...

@adinabb- That's how it worked for me. :)

@Charles- It's a shame because the character is so integral to the movie. I could have been so much better.

@Linds- It seems as if she was cast only because she's well known. There are a lot of movies like that, but if movies were cast on talent alone you'd never see someone like Stewart achieve any level of fame. As I understand it her parents are in the business- so it's nepotism as usual.

@Budd- I thought Lily Collins was okay in "Mirror Mirror" but I felt like she didn't quite get the sense of humor of the movie. The portrayal never fully gelled for me- though it was nowhere near as bad as Stewart's portrayal.

@LinWash- I was surprised at how pretty it was. The trailers never really gave a sense of the cinematography, instead focusing on the characters rather than the setting (which is understandable). That part of the movie was worth seeing.

Blodeuedd said...

I refuse to watch it, I just can't stand her acting. Always the same expression, no thank you

SQT said...

@Blodeuedd-- I had never seen her in anything and thought the criticisms must have been exaggerated. But they really aren't. She's the female Keanu Reeves- only worse.

Elfy said...

I got dragged to this, so I had really low expectations, too. Had it had someone other than she of the pout Kristen Stewart as the title character it may have exceeded them by more. Charlize Theron had a wonderful time chewing her way through the scenery and Chris Hemsworth did quite well if you could get past the ridiculous accent they saddled him with for no discernable reason. Those two performances and the effects saved the film from being a complete and total mess.

Liesel K Hill said...

I've never minded Stewart's acting. It's not my favorite or anything but she doesn't bug me as much as she seems to other people. The one major thing I would disagree with you on is that her performance here is entirely Stewart's fault. You're right that she has no presence and wasn't a particularly great character, but I tend to think that's a flaw in the writing. The same thing happened in Amanda Seyfried's Red Riding Hood. I love fairy tale retellings but for some reason, the last few movie version have featured flat, almost bimbo-ish women. I'm not sure why that is, but it frustrates me. And where are the feminists in all this. I don't consider myself much of one, but I don't hear any complaints about the women in these fairytales. In Red Riding Hood, Seyfried did not have a single intelligent line. She constantly sounded like a stepford wife or just a bad daytime soap opera character. Stewart's lines in the film weren't that bad, but she didn't have many. For being one of the two title characters, she had very few lines, very few dynamics, and very little story line. While I don't disagree with you on both points, I think Stewart's performance would have been naturally enhanced had the script allowed for a real woman. Just sayin.' :D Thanks for the review. Overall, I really liked the movie so I enjoy reading/typing about it!

SQT said...

@Elfy-- I couldn't pick on Hemsworth's accent because they all seemed kind of off. Theron's was pretty exaggerated in my opinion, so Hemsworth's seemed almost natural in comparison. I don't fault either actor though- I think that's an issue with the direction they were given.

@Liesel- I did mention the poor scripting a couple of times in my review, so I think I gave Stewart as much slack as I could. But the truth is she had plenty to work with. Hemsworth had just as little in the script, as did Claflin, yet they both conveyed the appropriate emotions and seemed perfectly believable in the context of the film. Stewart just can't act.

I've heard and read many feminists rail against traditional fairy tales. Usually they have something to say when these films are made. And there was an attempt to create a liberated Snow White here. She mustered her own army and brought them to fight Ravenna-- much more feminist in tone than the original story. If you look at a film like "Hunger Games" you'll see the difference a strong female lead can make in a movie. Katniss isn't a particularly verbose character either, but Lawrence conveys plenty with her eyes and body language. Stewart needs to learn how to do that. She's so flat. When the Huntsman rips off her skirt she's supposed to be shocked, to which he answers "don't flatter yourself," but it wasn't clear what they were going for until Hemsworth says his line because Stewart's reaction was so underplayed. Her performance drove me crazy.