16.6.12

Snow White and the Huntsman

If Laurie Penny wanted to riff on the 'good ruler complex', the new Snow White film would have provided more appropriate material, I think. Kirsten Stewart's coronation scene looks like the graduation ceremony of the Good Ruler University of Life. Yes, like Jon Snow or Arya Stark, Ms. White has to knuckle down with the plebeians in order to learn the ways of virtuous political leadership. Unlike Game of Thrones, however, the institution of monarchy is not portrayed as inherently corrupt – while the land lies desolate during Ravenna's reign, it is abursting with fertility before her rise to power, and will again when Ms. White replaces her, if that shot of the flower opening (ripped from LOTR or Pan's Labyrinth iirc) is any indication.

Kirsten Steward does not move her face all that much during the film. She's a bit like Tintin – no distinguishing features in order to make audience identification run as smoothly as possible. It's all about Charlize Theron's Ravenna, anyway – the second time I've seen her play someone fighting down the degradation of beauty, and thus, power. Her character here is designed to be some sort of critique of patriarchy: a low-born woman using her femininity to enhance her status. The film could have run further with this idea, though: showing the way Ravenna uses her mystique more widely to keep the population in awe – using the ideology that constrains her as a weapon to constrain others.

The film makes a tenuous link between Ravenna's obsession with keeping up appearances and her rapacious rule, which really should have been developed a bit more, since it is the hinge by which the film takes an old story and makes it new. It needed to show why Burke's Marie Antoinette would necessarily turn into a psychopathic White Witch lusting for immortality. If anything, Charlize Theron would have been more radical if she didn't play up the cliché evil vain crazy woman, intimations of incest and everything. Wouldn't she have been more scary, more real, if she was calculating, smart, quiet and ruthless?

The film sets out to critique pomp and circumstance in a roundabout way, by replacing the prince with the huntsman. (Sidebar: I suspect I could rest satisfied watching Chris Hemsworth play burly noble doofuses till the end of time.) Snow White is a good ruler because she has served her apprenticeship as one of the 99%. If the coronation at the film's culmination is undercut in some way, it is in the shot of the huntsman walking in, smirking at the new queen – a reminder that this reign will be different, inclusive. The gesture is perfunctory, however, and Laurie Penny can easily leap in here to point out its inconsistencies.

It sounds like I think the film got a lot of things wrong. Actually it is better than you would expect, with gauche but enjoyable symbols of bitten apples and wedding night stabbings, a spirit of the forest taken straight out of Princess Mononoke, and seven dwarves played by the very best British character actors. Fairy tales are derivative forms of entertainment, but you can still use the format and the expectations intelligently to ram home a point. Admirably, this film tries to say something new with the story. But an Angela Carter stan like myself would expect such exercises to push further.

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