It’s a story well-worn by time, familiar and beloved by many -- Snow White and her evil stepmother queen, the prince who loves her, and the huntsman who saves her. How could you breathe new life into something that’s not even dead? Snow White and the Huntsman finds a way to give us not so much a twist on the old fairytale, but a refreshing take with a visceral heart. Like the queen herself, the film is voracious and enthralling, packed with stunning effects and sweeping action, subverting the predictable and familiar with its dark re-telling of the classic story.
The opening scene is near-flawless in execution, wordlessly telling the story of a king whose wife has died and whose grief has attracted a dark army to draw him into battle and take his kingdom. The king defeats the soldiers in a breathtaking battle sequence in which the dark forces are seemingly made of obsidian and shatter with every strike of the king’s swords. Upon his victory, the king finds a female prisoner -- a stunning woman named Ravenna (Charlize Theron) -- and promptly marries her the next day. Later that night in their marital bed, she murders the king, revealing herself as the true force of evil and the commander of all those shattered soldiers. Ravenna quickly ascends to power as the land around her withers and rots, and her sorcery and cruelty reign terror over the people.
Ravenna locks Snow White (Kristen Stewart) in a tower and spends her days sucking the youth from young maidens to restore her power and keep herself young forever. In an early conversation with a young Snow White, and just before she kills the king, Ravenna intimates her motivations: Men use women up until they’re old and worn, and then so easily replace them with someone young and beautiful. Beauty is currency and power, and she will be neither victim to nor possession of man.
The film flirts with the idea of beauty being the most important thing a woman can give; an entire village of women whose husbands are off fighting unseen wars purposefully scar their faces to protect them from the queen’s wrath. Without their beauty, they are nothing to her, and though the queen positions herself in a way that feels empowering, she is instilling ideas in the people that she herself appears to loathe. It’s an aching dichotomy that humanizes the queen in ways that we’ve never seen with this character before.
Snow White escapes her lofty tower and the queen sends a drunken widower -- a local huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) -- to assist in her capture. The queen believes that only Snow White’s beating heart can give her ultimate immortality and eternal beauty. Meanwhile, William (Sam Clafin) -- the son of a duke and Snow White’s childhood friend -- takes up with the enemy to find his long lost friend. It’s not long before dwarves are introduced to the mix, and while they do offer some much-needed humor to this bleak landscape, they are never cloying or precious.
Theron is exquisite as the evil queen, an obsessed woman driven to the brink of insanity by the idea that she must remain beautiful always if she wishes to stay in power -- and that power in turn will keep her safe. She chews scenery in the most delightful sense, with an extravagant cadence that feels as smooth and alluring as silk while it’s being tied around your throat to asphyxiate you.
Stewart is equally as captivating, providing an empathetic, compassionate princess without all the fuss that we’ve come to expect from a lady with such a title. She gives off an easiness with her down to earth appearance and natural affectations that act as perfect counter to the queen’s imposing presence. Snow White is an empowered character, and though she leans on the help of the huntsman, William, and even the dwarves to keep her safe, she fearlessly enters battle by their side. Her most empowering attribute, though, is her compassion. Although the queen kept her locked in a tower for most of her life and she’s aware of the many horrors the people have had to endure at the hands of the queen, Snow White ultimately feels sorry for her. Surely the one conversation they ever shared must have stuck in her mind all these years.
Themes of beauty and compassion aside, first time director Rupert Sanders creates a magnificent world enhanced with darkly whimsical touches that are so expertly handled that even when fairies show up, it’s truly enchanting. The effects are stellar -- dripping mirrors, the queen crawling out of a puddle of ravens, a giant troll -- but the small visual flourishes are equally as impressive, like watching as the queen picks the hearts of small birds from their delicate chest cavities with a metal claw, or the detail that goes into everything from the costumes to the leaves and twigs on the ground.
When the major battle plays out during the climax, Snow White and her people storm the beach on horseback. The queen’s army loads catapults with what appear to be giant, flaming boulders that crash down all around our heroes on the beach, creating a fantastic effect as the sand sprays up in the air. Action scenes and plot-propelling dialogue scenes are evenly captivating, though -- perhaps in another show of how this is a movie about strong women -- our male leads are nebulous in comparison to the deliberately crafted starkness that surrounds them.
The script comes courtesy of John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Evan Daugherty (the upcoming The Killing Season) and Hossein Amini -- the latter of which also wrote the screenplay for last year’s Drive, and while the two share no aesthetic similarities, there’s a very deliberate feel to the Nicolas Winding Refn film that you can find in tiny echoes here, as this film -- like most of the best ones -- plays like an orchestra performing a classic, familiar epic under the guidance of a modern conductor. The tale is the same and it remains faithful to its source, but the delivery is impeccably fresh and invigorating.
Britt Hayes is a film and television critic and sensible sweater enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. She's a contributor for ScreenCrush.com and you can tweet her @MissBrittHayes.