Monday 31 December 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Oscar, Oscar on the wall, what’s the fairest sex of all? Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders.

It is not uncommon for the discerning movie-goer to bypass certain films on the big screen and instead proceed directly (if belatedly) to watching them on video (as those of us who remember wrist watches persist in calling it). Maybe the movie clocked up a mediocre score on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it merely appeared dubious through dint of an overzealous poster campaign, the proliferation of which hinted at some nail-biting desperation from marketers behind the scenes. But in either case, a small screen outing often can be more forgiving, and in rare and sometimes joyous instances can turn up an overlooked nugget (gold, not fluff-covered chicken) of movie-making par excellence.

Snow White and the Huntsman fits this bill rather well, scoring 6.4 (IMDB) and 5.6 (Tomatoes) and generally presenting as a plain-packaged, discount store, rather cardboard-tasting pastiche of Lord of the Rings. (Although – spoiler – there’s no giant spider; the eponymous “Huntsman” is just Chris Hemsworth looking large boned and somewhat better fed than the rest of the oppressed masses. Disappointing.) James Newton Howard’s orchestral score tries overly hard to emote where undeveloped character relationships and empty, would-be rousing speeches have provided no basis for pulling on the audience’s heartstrings. Medieval warriors gallop around in heavy armour that nevertheless seems incapable of mitigating – let alone shaking off entirely – the effects of arrows fired even at long range. The climactic battle for the castle clearly shows that, despite lugging around a budget of $170 million, nobody thought to spend even $100 in taking a historian down the pub and chatting about how to present something that wasn’t 100 per cent anathematic to military common sense. In short, although SWATH might have made for a decent enough computer game (director Rupert Sanders’ speciality prior to this, his first feature film), in cinematic terms it comes across as terribly clumsy, verging on incoherent. Little surprise that anyone reading the script – Tom Hardy, Johnny Depp, Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman, for example, though apparently not Hemsworth or Kristen Stewart – would see fit to turn down the titular roles.

Snow White and the Huntsman is, of course, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic Snow White; and one that leans far more towards the original “grimness” than towards Disney cutesy and happy-go-hi-hoeing dwarves. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel, as the actors overplay their parts and the plot scratches around like several chickens hatching soft boiled attack plans in the dirt, that the film may at one stage have been envisaged as a straight fantasy, and that the fairy tale element came into play merely as an excuse for having a slop bucket full of plot points that didn’t really make sense even within the established confines of the world being depicted. A sense of darkness, however, does not automatically make for a gritty and serious film. If one were to remake The Smurfs, for example, to a backdrop of cold war communism and the mushroom cloud pall of nuclear holocaust, it would still be The Smurfs. Gargamel wouldn’t be sinister and ruthless so much as prematurely balding. Papa Smurf would be festively Christmas- rather than tragically blood-red. And yet, even though one member of Snow White and the Huntsman’s lounge chair audience felt justifiably compelled to pause the DVD and ask, “This is meant to be serious, yes? Not a spoof?”, a more canny and devious assessment of SWATH will indeed show it to be far more than first meets the incredulous eye.

Of course Snow White and the Huntsman is a spoof. From the moment that Kristen Stewart escapes from the tower and sloshes her way through an oddly placed sewer, finds a conveniently grazing snow-white horse on the beach and rides it to its NeverEnding Story-esque sinkhole death barely a minute later (“Artax!”), naturally one can assume that the film is having a laugh at the expense of epic fantasy in toto. Not only does the aforementioned proliferation of armour afford less than minimal protection against arrows (an inverse mortality relationship comparable to the ineffectiveness of rapid-fire guns in action films), it in fact proves unable to withstand even the pointed caress of a tree stump! And if a troll should appear and attack out of nowhere, only to break off its instinctive savageness and go moping away once Snow White gives it her sympathetic gaze and shows that she understands it to be just stereotyped and misunderstood, then it follows almost without saying that the movie is not presenting this as something the viewer is expected to take seriously. It is, rather, a knowing wink. A farce. And as with all good farces, behind its cringe-worthy outer layer a serious point may be found lurking.

Cue the singing, bearded feminists.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention (and not merely wondering whether or not to bother pausing the DVD when taking a toilet break) surely will note the revisionist nature of Snow White and the Huntsman – the fact, for instance, that there are eight rather than seven dwarves, and that one of them is wearing a strap-on Womble mask – and the thrust of this reworking is quite clearly feminist in origin. Charlize Theron’s evil queen, for example, maintains her youthful looks by feeding on the life force of others – much in the way that the historical countess Elizabeth Báthory is said to have done – and she perpetrates this parasitic gluttony very much by way of retribution for the constancy with which men have objectified and mistreated women throughout history. (Snow White’s father, as a case in point, though still grieving the loss of Snow White’s mother, remarries the day after meeting Theron’s queen, purely on the grounds of physical infatuation.) Snow White herself is feisty to the point of channelling Joan of Arc. She survives not through being spared by a kind-hearted huntsman and sheltered by dwarves, as in the original tale. Rather, she escapes (albeit with the aid of a nail she hasn’t spotted anytime in the previous eight years or so), and when she meets the dwarves she empowers them, inspiring them to “grow” from maleficent marauders into stout-hearted heroes. Snow White is a modern woman and, as such, refuses to put up with the heroic predominance traditionally afforded to males. She kills the queen through her own initiative. She refuses to fall for or choose as husband either of her prospective love interests. Even in matters of religion, although praying to her holy father (who art in heaven), she has no qualms about seemingly dying and then rising from the dead. Jesus, it seems, may well have been a woman, and for all its apparent mediocrity, SWATH in essence is doing no less than making a case for the overhauling of outmoded fantasy preconceptions. It is nothing short of a feminist call to arms.

And yet, one might wonder…

In the late seventies and early eighties, ancient historians Garthwaite and Ahl wrote several academic papers on a literary device that they termed “safe criticism”; which, in essence, allowed a writer who feared for his safety to offer up some negative viewpoint disguised as praise. Most of Ahl’s and Garthwaite’s fellows took this posturing to be facetious, but heretofore, with Snow White and the Huntsman giving rise to a proposed sequel, the concept is one that perhaps should be taken very seriously indeed. For there are elements to SWATH that hint at a very deliberate – and by necessity, very subtle – undermining of the feminist doctrine that the film presents in veiled form to its viewers. For a start there is the pervading “poorness”. Yes, the females are strong, but no matter how powerful and proactive their contributions, if these are made within the framework of a cinematic flop then surely the triumph resonates with the hollow echo of defeat? Furthermore, do the so-called feminist elements withstand closer scrutiny? Indeed, one might say not. Theron’s queen is afforded a sense of righteous justification for her actions, but was it really men who made her what she is? Yes and no. Through direct cause and effect it actually was her mother (who herself was a man-hater; this is taken for granted and the basis for that hate is left largely to the imagination). And when Snow White claims she knows how to kill the queen, her plan, in essence, is nothing more sophisticated than to charge mindlessly at her, sword pointed like a shish kebab; it is only by using the Huntsman’s knife trick (dropped rather blatantly into the plot earlier on) that she is able to end the queen’s evil reign (or, to pick at the nuance, relieve the poor woman/child of her voraciously bloodthirsty but ultimately unwanted burden). And what truly is the symbolism of Snow White’s not choosing a love interest to sit by her side as the credits roll? Is it a fierce independence and laudable detachment from doe-eyed swooning, or merely that she’s been locked up in a tower ever since she was a little girl? Perhaps, in the veiled but caustic appraisal of safe criticism, this beau ideal of feminism is simply the natural consequence of someone who’s yet to grow up.

Kristen Stewart, for those who’ve been living inside a black box, shielded from the explosive fallout of cinematic disaster, starred in the Twilight films – truly lamentable movies in their own right – and if we extrapolate from Garthwaite’s and Ahl’s treatise then her casting in Snow White and the Huntsman may well be seen as an insidious attempt to poison the film’s overtly covert feminism through recourse to the overly glossy red apple of teenage fanaticism. For every ounce that Snow White may purport to be a role model of female empowerment, Stewart replies in kind with her staple expression of toothy, lips parted, slightly baffled teen uncertainty; and if, perhaps, it is stretching the argument too far to suggest that her and Sanders’ off-screen affair was a deliberate stratagem by the latter to undermine and so safely criticise the feminist polemic (his eyes for her also blinding him to glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the film), nevertheless there is some analogous evidence to that effect. The casting of non-dwarf actors to play the dwarves, and the stereotyping of Sam Spruell as the queen’s unnervingly creepy albino brother, is precisely the sort of negative discrimination that, in contrast to the positively presented female empowerment, hints at the feminism in question being not the laudable, equal rights and equal treatment variety but rather the more militant product of a retributive backlash that has seen many a son doubled over and paying dearly for the sins of his father.

One vital but often overlooked aspect of safe criticism (ignored even by Ahl and Garthwaite) is that the “safe” element should give way eventually to a more overt criticism. In the telling of Snow White and the Huntsman this dénouement comes in the form of the huntsman’s blaming Snow White’s father for what has befallen the land. How stupid of the man, he says (in essence), to enrage and patronise the evil hag so much that she would bring his benevolent rule to a sticky end; how irresponsible to goad her into sucking the life out of the kingdom. Thus through absurdity the feminist take is both presented and ridiculed. Or is this line of reasoning perhaps akin to drawing fairy castles in the air? Could it be that when Wikipedia makes the claim that historians were consulted both as to the literary history of the Snow White story and the historical accuracy of the battle scenes, yet in the relevant footnote cites only an article giving dubious evidence to the former,1 there has simply been an error, not a deliberate effort to re-write and re-layer the film? Though not discounting this possibility, one surely must acknowledge that it would be a terrible shame; for, divested of these ingenious and conniving undertones, SWATH would have nothing left by which to judge it than what we see at face value – and is it not terribly reprehensible and shallow to look no further than surface appearances?

Just ask the moss-covered tortoise briefly seen plodding across the small screen and then covering its eyes, desperately trying to shield itself either from Snow White and the Huntsman’s shambling avatar or from the deeper implications of this home theatre tour de force.

1. [note 19]; Clark, Nick, “Philip Pullman to publish new adaptations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, The Independent (March 20, 2012) []

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