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Foundas on Film: “Snow White and the Huntsman” & “Hemingway & Gellhorn”

By Scott Foundas on June 01, 2012

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The proverbial mirror on the proverbial wall in Snow White and the Huntsman looks more like a golden wok, and when the evil queen (Charlize Theron) stands before it, the thing turns into a smoldering mass of anthropomorphic goo, slithering across her chamber floor and reassembling itself into something like humanoid form. The talking goo reminds the queen that she will not remain the fairest in the land so long as her bothersome stepdaughter, Snow White (Kristen Stewart), remains among the living. Which, in turn, sends the queen into paroxysms of rage—the siren cry, if you will, of a Hollywood actress just this side of 40, gazing into her future.

There are a great many reasons to avoid seeing Snow White and the Huntsman, the self-consciously dark and brooding—and thuddingly lifeless—reworking of the Grimm fairy tale for the Game of Thrones era. But one of the few reasons to see it is Theron’s grandiose turn as a woman desperately clinging to the vestiges of her fading beauty. When an actress goes this far out on a highly theatrical ledge—think Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest—critics are usually waiting with their penknives, ready to skewer the performance as camp. (At least one early Snow White review has already accused Theron of consuming all the scenery save for the mirror.) But given the scarcity of quality roles for women of “a certain age” in ageist, image-obsessed Hollywood, Theron’s hyped-up histrionics struck me as close to documentary. Whether she’s bathing herself in what looks like a medieval version of Oil of Olay or, in a nod to Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires, literally sucking the youth and beauty from the souls of innocent young maidens, there’s a palpable despair underlying Theron’s every action—the despair of any performer who fears becoming the next tenant of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Would that the rest—or, really, any—of Snow White and the Huntsman were up to Theron’s level. Clearly modeled on that masterpiece of dirtied-up, revisionist mythologies, John Boorman’s Excalibur, the movie is long on atmosphere—thundering armies of phantom soldiers who disintegrate into glass, darkly magical forests that reach out and touch you—but woefully short on characters whose imperiled destinies rouse even the faintest of concern. The director, Rupert Sanders, is an award-winning British commercials whiz making his movie debut, and he’s clearly spent some time schooling himself on the work of another British commercials whiz turned Hollywood A-lister, Ridley Scott. It’s a likeness underlined by Snow White’s arrival in theaters on the doorstep of Scott’s own Prometheus (also starring Theron). But oddly, the Scott movie Sanders seems to have studied the closest is the director’s epic 1985 folly, Legend, with its new-agey hodgepodge of demons and goblins and Tom Cruise communing with a white unicorn. Here, in one of Sanders’s more risible scene, Snow White gets up close and personal with a giant, antlered forest spirit, while all creatures great and small look on in awestruck wonder. You half expect someone to burst into song, until an errant arrow from one of the queen’s henchmen spoils the trippy garden party.

Mainly, the movie unfolds as one big, long, and very dull chase, with the beautiful princess on the run from stepmom’s minions, aided and abetted by the titular Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth of Thor fame), a not-too-bright bounty hunter who becomes a chain-mail Clyde to her enchanted Bonnie. And yes, there will be dwarves—a who’s who of British character acting talent (Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Nick Frost, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan), digitally reduced to miniature proportions and given almost nothing of consequence to do (disproving the old adage that there are no small parts). The movie pivots on the hoped-for chemistry between Stewart and Hemsworth, and while such things are ultimately in the eye of the beholder, I for one beheld nothing but a couple of kids dressed up for Halloween making unconvincing googly eyes at each other and spouting some of the most insipid romantic platitudes this side of the Twilight franchise. Hemsworth’s Huntsman, supposedly traumatized by the loss of his wife, comes across about as grief-stricken as someone who’s lost his car keys. Stewart’s Snow White, meanwhile, pouts her lips, bats her bedroom eyes, and scarcely seems to have more on her mind than who might take her to the senior prom—let alone the destiny of an entire kingdom. Periodically, Theron resurfaces to inject the movie with her icy frisson. Was I alone in secretly rooting for her to vanquish the forces of good and continue her reign?

It’s not even officially summer yet, but those already seeking refuge from the summer tent-pole doldrums need look no further than HBO to find the best movie not playing at any multiplex or art-house theater near you. The movie is Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen as the poet laureate of frustrated American masculinity and Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn, the lauded war correspondent who would become Hemingway’s third wife. Separately and together, they covered the Spanish and Chinese civil wars, and made a go at something like domestic bliss in Cuba, which proved to be the most perilous combat zone of them all. “What’s always appealed to me about life is what’s happening on the outside—action,” an aged Gellhorn, recounting her life story for a TV crew, remarks early on in Hemingway & Gellhorn, and it’s the conceit of the film that Gellhorn was always more at ease on the front lines of global conflict than on those of la vie quotidienne.

Hemingway & Gellhorn was directed by Philip Kaufman, who has long been one of the great American filmmakers, but who has spent most of the last decade in retreat, unable to find a project worthy of his prodigious gifts or—more likely—backers willing to make those projects happen. He’s the sort of director who’s a true anomaly in today’s Hollywood—a master group portraitist (his closest analogues are Robert Altman and Howard Hawks) who privileges character above plot and specializes in juxtaposing tightly knit circles of friends, artists, iconoclasts against the broader currents of social and political change. So Hemingway & Gellhorn (which was scripted by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner) is a movie about its two title characters, but also a big, sweeping, richly satisfying survey of the times in which they lived and the other storied figures who drifted in and out of their tempestuous ecosystem.

They first spy each other in a Key West watering hole called Sloppy Joe’s: he sidles up to her at the bar and she pulls out a review that praises her work at his expense. And that more or less sets the tone for all that follows—two lives entwined by physical passion and shared obsessions, torn asunder by competitiveness and petty jealousies. To Spain they go, where Hemingway lends a hand—and later his voice—to the anti-Franco propaganda film The Spanish Earth, made by the great Dutch documentarian Joris Ivens (well played, in an audacious bit of casting, by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich) in collaboration with the writer John Dos Passos (David Strathairn) and photographer Robert Capa (Santiago Cabrera). And later, to China, where they rub elbows with the warring ideologues Chiang Kai Shek and Zhou Enlai. In between, there is Cuba, where Ernest and Martha play at making their marriage work, and it is the only point at which Hemingway & Gellhorn itself feels less than fully vital. Like Gellhorn herself, the movie wants to be where the action is.

This kind of biographical film always faces the danger of having scene after scene of famous people meeting other famous people, but Kaufman deploys it all smoothly and effortlessly, bringing this heady world of revolution-minded artists and intellectuals to life as vividly as he did for the space-race pioneers of The Right Stuff and the Prague Spring lovers of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In Cannes, where Kaufman’s film premiered alongside another movie about the private lives of famous writers, Walter Salles’s respectable but stolid On the Road, the disparity was acutely felt.

Owen makes for a fine Hemingway—suitably big and brash and drunk on ego, a whirligig of self-aggrandizement and self-destruction. But it’s Kidman who’s the real revelation as Gellhorn—a woman who practices sex as a kind of intellectual exercise, fiercely navigating her way through the male-dominated society of the era. It’s a bold, full-bodied performance that ranks alongside To Die For, Dogville, and Margot at the Wedding as the riskiest high-wire work of her career. Kaufman does marvelous things with small supporting players, too, like the excellent Molly Parker as Hemingway’s put-upon second wife, Pauline, who manages in a few short scenes to convey a poetic sense of a woman trying to tame a lion with a riding crop.

The movie is a triumph of visual imagination, too, finding all of its exotic locales in ingeniously repurposed parts of Kaufman’s beloved San Francisco, and with marvelous visual effects that seamlessly insert the actors into real historical footage. When people lament the lack of sophisticated adult entertainment at the movies these days, Hemingway & Gellhorn is exactly the sort of movie they’re pining for—and indeed, it’s hard to imagine any major studio, or most independents, taking a chance on a project like this nowadays. Is this what Norma Desmond meant when she said that the pictures had gotten small?

Snow White and the Huntsman is now playing nationwide. Hemingway & Gellhorn is now playing on HBO.

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