As not a few critics have remarked, Snow White and the Huntsman suffers from having a commercial director at its helm: Rupert Sanders, in his feature debut, doesn’t organize the story as tightly and smoothly as I would have liked. That’s the rotten part of the apple, but thankfully it’s only a small part, and Sanders’s style of direction benefits the film as well. His experience in commercials has given him a knack for saying a lot with a little and for fleshing out the conventional plot and mediocre script with imagery that not only looks gorgeous, but also has rich symbolic significance. (Minor spoils to follow).
If you’ve seen the previews, you’ve probably noticed Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) undressing and submerging herself into a milk bath, still wearing her crown. What you don’t see in the promotions is the previous scene, in which a dozen starving peasants struggle with one another to drink and contain milk that pours from an outside faucet. It’s immediately after this visual that we watch Ravenna get into her baptismal font of a bathtub, which has its own pouring faucets. The implication is that the peasants are drinking Ravenna’s bath milk, which, if you think about it, would mean they’re also drinking any grime, dirt, and dead skin that falls off the queen. Forget scraps off a table.
Ravenna, we learn early on, brings death to the people and to the land. When after seduction and deceit she takes the thrown, the land around the castle dies. She breathes life out of the young to maintain her immortality. She eats the hearts of the living, from birds and, she hopes, from Snow White. Ravenna’s bath continues this symbolism, twisting the images of baptism and Eucharistic meal. If you think I read too much religious symbolism into this scene, remember that all-grown-up Snow White’s first words in the script are the “Our Father,” the whole prayer recited while she holds hand-made figures of her deceased parents.
Like Beowulf and other works of medieval literature, this telling of Snow White incorporates both Christian and pagan imagery. We’re treated to fairies, a troll, a white hart who gives a prophesied blessing, clerics, liturgies, and rose windows. The heroes get a momentary respite in a place called Sanctuary, an Eden-like outdoor church of sorts, where grass grows on snakes and turtles and where a priestly hart shatters into a mass of soaring butterflies. Here the worlds of plant, insect, animal, and person are one. And here Snow White receives her blessing, as if life itself (to which she is also compared) were anointing her.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for all this symbolism. I’m used to seeing it in Eastern films, but contemporary Western movies, when they focus on imagery, too often tend to go the route of nihilistic over-stylization. Sanders borrows some of the techniques of his contemporaries, showing us slow-motion falling drops of blood and spilled wine splattering all over the floor, but his intent differs from the typical in that he’s concerned with the extended meaning these stylized visuals convey. Major spoiler: It’s no visual accident, for example, that one of the Queen’s chief assistants gets it on the shards of a tree stump.
I wish Sanders and the script writers had taken as much care with the characters and the plot, which are the stuff of legend, but not very memorable. Erik Kain has compared the film to Willow in some of its plotting and conventions. It also calls to mind scenes from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I couldn’t help but think of Arwen’s flight from the Nazgul when watching Kristen Stewart’s Snow White fleeing the queen’s soldiers on horseback; although, truth be told, I found Snow’s chase-scene more thrilling than Arwen’s. I’ll have to see it again to be sure, but Snow White and the Huntsman may be my favorite live-action fantasy movie. It’s not the profound, truth-disclosing fairy tale Alyssa Rosenberg hoped it would be, but it does what it does well enough, and in some cases magnificently.
My only major gripe: the climactic showdown loses steam because we haven’t seen Snow White’s character develop to the point of her being a convincing leader. I would have liked to have had another 20 or so minutes of seeing Snow White build support, plan a battle strategy, learn the ins and out of combat, and show her followers why she is a figure worth loving, following, and dying for. The film gave us hints and inklings of this–her obvious joy at her father’s remarriage to Ravenna, her constant selflessness and desire to help those in need–but her nobility of heart would have shown brighter had she been given scenes of conflict with the other heroes in which she stood above them in morality and majesty.