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James Dempsey: Why Mirror Mirror is a poor reflection on the talent of Grimm movie-maker Tarsem

UNLESS you are the parent of a motley crew of demanding moppets, seeking out some sort of solace from the chocolate-coated delirium of the Easter Bunny’s ovum pandemonium in the relative sanctum of the cinema screen, you probably gave the PG Snow White reboot Mirror Mirror a miss this weekend.

And rightly so, with this painfully awkward pantomime from Indian director Tarsem Singh Dhandwar – known professionally only as Tarsem – showing all the heavy-handedness of his previous work, a visual binge of style over substance. Mirror Mirror, fittingly perhaps, is the movie equivalent of an Easter egg: an awful lot of shiny packaging that ultimately unwraps to reveal something hollow, and largely forgettable.

Since his debut in 2000 with the Jennifer Lopez-starring psychedelic S&M romp The Cell, Tarsem’s cinematic output has always been marked by a fetishistic fidelity to his directorial hard-on for visual flourish at the cost of narrative development. His follow up, The Fall, a huge improvement in terms of framing a discernible plot, remains mostly unseen, and his biggest hit to date was last year’s Immortals, a swords’n’sandals celebration of balls-to-the-wall violence and Greek demigods with a D&G aesthetic.

Mirror Mirror, though, suffers from Tarsem’s inept handling of the film’s silly slapstick and kid-friendly comedy, with Julia Roberts’ evil queen never quite as sly as needed, and neige-naïf Lily Collins’ eyebrows providing most of her performance as Snow White. All in all, not really something worth spending a tenner on, unless you badly needed to bridge the weekend with some brainless popcorn escapism courtesy of the film’s “generous” near two-hour runtime. The less said about the seven dwarfs, the better.

And yet, there is one very good reason to reconsider forking out the fare to see Mirror Mirror, the person to whom the film is dedicated. For the film marks the swansong of Eiko Ishioka, one of the most visionary costume designers in cinematic history, whose work had earned the modest Japanese designer an Academy Award, a Grammy and the respect of some of the most avant-garde performers in the world today.

Ishioka passed away from pancreatic cancer in January in Tokyo, and her costume design is all any critic can talk about having seen Mirror Mirror, with the rallying calls for a posthumous second Oscar already being heard. While it may seem unlikely that a young man, whose singular sartorial quirk was a Derby County FC scarf regrettably lost last week, should be recommending you see a film solely for its frilly dresses, Ishioka’s tailoring is an art form to behold, with surrealistic clothing that lifts Tarsem’s film out of the dull and dire and raises it up as a singularly visual work of achievement in costume design.

The volume of the pieces on display is staggering in and of itself, with Roberts and Collins’ gowns routinely measuring up to 6ft in circumference, more like elaborate engineering projects of wiring and corsetry than movie frocks, all draped in 25-35 yards of sumptuous saffron and lustrous cobalts. One piece, an ivory wedding dress worn by the Evil Queen was 8ft wide and weighed as much as 60lbs, comprised of overlapping diamond-shaped panels that wouldn’t look out of place on the catwalks of Paris.

In total, Ishioka designed over 400 pieces for the film, ranging from ornate maritime millinery for the palace’s courtesans, to a number of animal inspired costumes for a ball scene, all the while undergoing chemotherapy for her terminal illness. Although she would not live to see the completed reels, star Lily Collins remembers her visit to the set and described how, “She was seeing all of her incredible creations in one scene and it must have been so amazing and thrilling. But she was always so humble. All she did was smile.”

Ishioka worked with Tarsem on all four of his films, and it is hard to imagine where the director will go next, having lost the dynamic contributor to his stylistic productions. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, he promises his next film, Eye in the Sky, will be more plot-driven and grounded, with considerably less visual excess as he rebuilds his creative team.

But Mirror Mirror should be enjoyed for Ishioka’s work, for while her costuming is the one thing the film does well, it is a wonder to behold. It is not a good film, but is a fitting tribute to a creative genius, one who once told Jennifer Lopez she would not make her costume more comfortable because “… you’re supposed to be tortured.”

Sometimes, as a film fan, you have to sit through some Grimm torture to find the fairytale on the other side.