"Snow White and the Huntsman,"starring a fierce Kristen Stewart and an even fiercer Charlize Theron as warring sides of good and evil, is a baroque enchantment filled with dazzling darkness, desultory dwarfs, demonic trolls and beastly fairies. It is an absolute wonder to watch and creates a warrior princess for the ages. But what this revisionist fairy tale does not give us is a passionate love — its kisses are as chaste as the snow is white.
Perhaps they are saving the passion for the sequel, for it seems there is surely one to come after director Rupert Sanders' brilliantly inventive debut. The film's Alexander McQueen-esque illusions of grandeur do a very good job of masking its flaws, and for the story, Evan Daugherty has conjured up a serious feminist twist on the ages old fable. It is his first screenplay to be produced, with later assists and shared credit with veterans John Lee Hancock ("The Blind Side," "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") and Hossein Amini ("Drive," "The Wings of the Dove").
The bones of the tale remain as the Brothers Grimm envisioned it — a villainess queen obsessed with beauty, a truth-telling mirror, a fairer and far younger Snow White, helpful hapless dwarfs, a poison apple and the power of true love's kiss. But it's the way in which the filmmakers have fleshed things out that makes the magic happen. The best addition is a drunken mercenary in the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), who is pressed by the Queen to track down Snow White.
Instead of a prince, there is a childhood sweetheart who grows into the daring duke William (Sam Claflin), a bowman destined to break down walls that both protect and repress. Queen Ravenna is now blessed and cursed with a hopelessly devoted and devious brother Finn (Sam Spruell). And in addition to notions of immortality, the pure of heart and the blackest of souls, the film is examining all the ways in which power-mad politics can bleed a country and its people dry.
But the seismic shifts have come in the heroics, with Snow White driven by her destiny to right the wrongs of her kingdom, a girl of ambitions who can't be bothered by love. Duke William is something of a romantic player, but it's the Huntsman who proves most worthy of Snow White's anger and her affection — she's really not into the whole being saved thing, and if there's a white steed, she'll ride it herself, thank you very much.
Hemsworth has a great screen presence that works as a good counterpoint to the slightly built Stewart. He is explosive when there are fights to pick, but he flounders as a sloppy drunk and he's not given much of a chance to become a heartthrob.
In Theron's hands, Ravenna plays a lethal political and personal game, literally and figuratively sucking the life out of everything and everyone around her. It is a chilling transformation for the actress, who embodies the Queen's desperation for youth and immortality in ways that are frighteningly reflective of our times. Those bloody little raven hearts she seems to be munching would sell like hotcakes if they had half of the rejuvenating properties we witness on screen.
But none of it would work without Stewart's steely Snow White as the bough that will not break, and never have the actress' soulful eyes and exposed heart worked more in her favor. The story begins with her magical childhood (Raffey Cassidy plays the young Snow White) that is soon marred by her mother's death and her father's (Noah Huntley) fateful fall for the damsel who will cause all the distress and that molten mirror mirror on the wall. Its shape-shifting properties are one of the film's many mesmerizing effects (Christopher Obi gives the reflecting glass a booming bass voice to match).
What exceeds expectations is the way in which the film realizes Sanders' insane flights of fancy, from the evil armies that shatter into dark shards to the eerie way in which actors Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins have been morphed into wonderfully wizened dwarfs.
This is a movie that is built from the ground up for maximum visual impact — the sewage that Snow White must swim through is wretched, the rock-hewn castle seems hand-carved out of the cliffs, the mythical white stag in a forest lush with bewitching flora and fauna is otherworldly to behold.
And anything that Ravenna touches — from her cloak of black feathers to her milk bath immersion — really look like ideas plucked from a Paris runway or a Vogue fashion spread. Greig Fraser handles the gorgeous cinematography, Dominic Watkins the production design, Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood the costumes. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Philip Brennan supervise visual effects, but they are only the tip of the iceberg that created this monument to style.
There is substance to be sure in all the righteous battles that are waged, the mettle that is tested. But this is ultimately a story whose heroine's fate hangs on a kiss. And the power of that kiss to breathe life into anyone or anything is the hardest thing about this fairy tale to believe.