These Dwarves are Awesome

Snow White and the Huntsman ***1/2

Make no mistake: Snow White and the Huntsman is terrific filmmaking. It is visually stunning, with many sequences of staggering beauty. It has a satisfying, classically three-act structure; surprisingly interesting characters, excellent music and extremely effective special effects. But most of all, it is perfectly cast.

We’ll get to the leads a little later, who are all excellent, but the coup de theatre of the film, its absolutely  brilliant conceit, is the casting of, essentially, all the great British Criminal Actors as the dwarves. You could literally cast Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming AND The Caretaker with these eight men and run them side by side on the West End to packed houses for years. (Yes, there are eight dwarves, probably because the first seven old geezers cast suggested to the studio that they wanted the eighth as drinking buddy). Check out this cast-list of dwarves and tell me why you wouldn’t see a movie with them in it together: Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone (Ray Winstone!), Eddie Marsden, Toby Jones, Nick Frost, Johnny Harris and Brian Gleeson. As the dwarves, this den of thieves of actors are noble and solemn, dignified and caring, occasionally funny but more often touching. Sporting crazy hair (just wait till you see Ray Winstone!) and equally batty beards and mustaches, the years of interaction between these titans of British screen and stage is not just palpable, it is the heart and soul of the film, and indicative of the care that has been taken in bringing this we-all-thought-we-knew-it fairy tale to the screen.

This is not to detract from the leads. As Snow White, Kristen Stewart is terrific. I have not seen any of theTwilight films, but on the basis of Panic Room, Runaways, and now this, I have to say she’s among my very favourite younger actors (something I can’t say for her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, who ruined Bel Ami recently). Stewart has the least interesting role in the film – imprisoned Princess escapes, realizes her destiny, fights to get her kingdom back – but she makes you care, which can be hard in this type of blockbuster (did you care about Will Smith in Men In Black 3?) Stewart has a fragility to her, a vulnerability, that is very winning when combined with her character arc, from pitiable, mistreated orphan to heroic avenger.

Fragility and vulnerability are not words that come to mind when talking about Charlize Theron. Five foot ten, with a ballerina’s posture and the most most beautiful face on the planet, Theron, who is one of my favourite “mid-career” actors, is absolutely, resolutely, impeccably perfect casting as the Evil Queen. This is, obviously, the best role in the film, and Theron commits one hundred percent, where a lesser star might have hammed it up, or, worse, phoned it in. The Evil Queen’s dilemma (in this interpretation at least) is that aging, along with lessening her beauty, decreases her magical powers, so she is constantly seeking youth – achieved here by orally sucking in the breath of young women, which ages them as it creates youth in her (think The Picture of Dorian Grey). This vampiric character trait makes for one of the film’s most disturbing images; although this is the fairy tale, it is the fairy tale retold for adults (well, teens as well I suppose, if they’re at all interested in seeing the East End Gangsters All Stars as Dwarves). Theron makes the Queen’s fears palpable, while never seeking our sympathy (make no mistake, she’s a Royal Bitch). It’s an excellent performance, totally sticking within genre and yet, in a way, elevating it, in the way that Ian McKellan elevated Gandalf.

“The Huntsman”, sent by the Evil Queen to capture Snow White but quickly becoming Snow White’s hero, bodyguard and spiritual advisor, is played by Chris Hemsworth, and with this movie you watch him become a Major Movie Star. As Thor, Hemsworth was lumbered with ill-conceived faux-Shakesperean dialogue, and he made the choice of intoning it sonorously, which made him look ridiculous in The Avengers when he had to maintain that style opposite Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr., who spoke like human beings. Here, Hemsworth has to play an old-fashioned hero, a widower with incredible muscles, drinking and brawling his way into depression, who will find redemption through the platonic love of a Princess, and he does it with élan. It’s the kind of role Tyrone Power and Robert Mitchum used to play; it’s Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. You aren’t rooting for this guy to make it with the Princess: you’re rooting for him to protect the Princess, because that’s his job, that’s what he’s there for, and she’s a Princess.

It’s almost inconceivable to me that this is the first feature film from director Rupert Sanders; it’s equally almost inconceivable that the studio entrusted a first-timer with such a huge and important project (in case you didn’t know, Kristen Stewart is the Biggest Female Movie Star On The Planet). But he delivers the goods. The only question is: do you want this movie? Not matter how well made, it’s far less immersive than Game of Thrones, which it strongly resembles in castles, horses and facial hair, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the depth of fictional mythology of the Lord of the Rings films. But, frankly, I enjoyed this more than any of the Lord of the Rings movies (not more than Game of Thrones, which is in a league of its own). It’s satisfyingly self-contained, beautiful, other-worldly and surprisingly sophisticated. It also contains lines such as (intoned by dwarf Bob Hoskins) “You have eyes, Huntsman, but you cannot see.” If you can handle that sort of dialogue, this is an excellent film for you. If not, you are, simply, not the audience. It’s a childhood fairy tale re-interpreted for an adult fantasy audience. If that’s you, you might love it. I did.

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