Big film of the week: Snow White is on the comeback trail in 2012.
In the summer, she'll be played by Kristen Stewart in a stylish-looking action film called Snow White and the Huntsman, and meanwhile we have Mirror, Mirror, an altogether gentler affair starring Lily Collins, daughter of rock drummer Phil. In the original Grimm Brothers fairytale and the iconic 1937 Disney animated film version, Snow White was a fey, passive victim who depended entirely on the good offices of others for her survival.
In this endlessly ironic, post-feminist age that sort of behaviour simply won't do, and both of the new Snow White films have reinvented the bloodless drip. In Snow White and the Huntsman she's a warrior princess, and in Mirror, Mirror it's the prince rather than her who seems to be in constant need of rescuing. Julia Roberts plays the evil Queen Clementianna, and opens things up by giving us her side of the story.
Snow White was the only child of the kingdom's beloved and benevolent King, who raised the girl alone after her mother died in childbirth. Everything was dandy till the King was beguiled by the beautiful but cruel Clementianna, whom he married and made his Queen.
Soon afterwards, the King was lost when he entered the enchanted forest to do battle with a man-eating beast. This left Snow White in the tender mercies of Clementianna, and the girl has grown up a virtual prisoner in the castle, while the kingdom has gone to rack and ruin. The peasants are starving, taxes are rising, and the Queen is obsessed with finding herself a rich and handsome young suitor.
She thinks she's hit the jackpot when Prince Andrew (Armie Hammer) turns up. After being set upon by a gang of pint-sized brigands in the forest, the Prince arrives at Clementianna's palace looking for help. She's instantly smitten, and begins scheming to trick him into falling in love with her. But he has the hots for Snow White, and when the Queen finds out she tells her servant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take the girl out into the forest and kill her.
Brighton can't do it, and sets her free, and in the forest Snow White meets seven dwarf bandits who become her allies in a battle to free the kingdom from the yoke of oppression.
The Grimm Brothers original fairytale was full of dark edges: there was a glass coffin and at one point the Queen chowed down, Hannibal Lecter-like, on a liver she thought was Snow White's. None of those nasty undercurrents are in evidence here, for this is a jokey, timid retelling of the story, a glib fable for a glib time.
Director Tarsem Singh and his writers Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack appear to be reaching for a Princess Bride effect, but if that's their intention the finished film falls way short in terms of charm, and jokes. Roberts looks right as the treacherous Clementianna, but flounders a little in a performance caught midway between ice queen and panto dame.
In fairness, she's not alone, and the comic talents of both Roberts and Hammer are thrown away by bad writing and clumsy, clunky direction. Lane raises a smile now and again as the cowardly Brighton, but none of the actors are given sufficient time and space to spark off each other and bring this lumbering pantomime to life.
As for Collins, she's strikingly pretty and reminiscent of a young Elizabeth Taylor, though those Douglas Hurd eyebrows could do with a good tweezing. She's inoffensive but dull in the role that should provide the film's fulcrum: Saoirse Ronan was apparently first choice, and would surely have been more interesting.
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