Tuesday, 3 April 2012

We’ve got magic to do

Mirror, Mirror directed by Tarsem Singh; written by Mark Klein and and Jason Keller

Amidst a stunning animated sequence which acts as our prologue to the film, the narrator – who we soon come to learn is the (Evil) Queen tell us, referring to Snow White (so dubbed because it was the most pretentious name her parents could conceive) – “This is my story, not hers.” Of course, things being as they are and this existing more as an updated entry in the annals of the Snow White tale than an actual overhaul, we soon come to learn that the Queen is wrong. This is, still the story of Snow White. The beautiful, generally naïve orphan princess whose kingdom is being illegitimately ruled by her aging stepmother who’s displeased with Snow’s growing beauty and would like it best if she could get rid of her. And dwarfs. Dwarves. * The usual song and dance.

Of course, because this is the era where ‘most everyone seems up in arms about revisionist cinema this not quite your typical snow. Tarsem Singh is another one of my unfortunate blindspots in contemporary filmmakers having only seen his first feature The Cell, even if that’s – in theory – enough to clue me in on his proclivity for the frames teeming with visual lusciousness and the type. But, it’s not only a heady visual style which sets Mirror, Mirror apart from a standard tale of Snow (White). Clue #1: The Evil Queen played by Julia Roberts in an accent which admittedly confounds as much as it amuses is characterised as less expressly evil than selfishly decadent. Clue #2: Armie Hammer’s diverts between being vaguely doltish and expressly simple. Clue #3: The seven dwarves are bandits. Snow White joins them. As you’d imagine, shenanigans ensue.

The film’s first third, or so, is buoyant enough. I make note of Julia’s accent because a number of the cast members make use of a standard American one and it doesn’t take someone very discerning to notice the parallels in America’s (former?) Sweetheart asking if she’s still the fairest of them all. And, she’s as game doing it as you could possibly hope for. Granted, I’ve always been fond of her and she brings her usually unpretentious nature to the role. There’s an early scene where she muses as to what it is that annoys her about her stepdaughter and it’s played without the least bit of irony or finagling for laughs. Which becomes as much a boost as it does a crutch as the film unfolds. The first half hour sets it all up wonderfully with the prince firmly out of the spotlight, the dwarves almost absent with specific focus on the female/female dynamic seeming to make way for a familiar, but pleasing, dynamic where we’ll be privy to that unavoidable showdown between Snow and the Queen. But, it doesn’t quite work out as such.

Snow leaves the palace and learns of the denigration of the kingdom folk, the broke Queen holds a ball to trick the younger Prince into marrying her and with that the tone of the film changes. Not necessarily for the worse. The bread and butter of any telling of the tale is, after all, the Queen’s attempt to execute Snow and for all her snark I never succumb to the idea that Julia’s Queen would do such a thing, and plan it so poorly. Because, of course, Snow does not die and when she happens upon the thieving dwarves she joins their ranks. In its way, it’s probably best that Snow leaves the castle because it’s away from the Queen that Lilly Collins’ charm is most easily distinguished. As she moves from generally guileless princess to spunky rogue aided by costume work from the much (and deservedly) fêted costumes from Eiko Ishioka her performance seems to get more interesting. And, Snow’s dalliance with the dwarves leads to two of the film’s finer moments – the duel with Snow and the Prince, and the running gag of the Prince running into the lascivious Queen shirtless. “Oh, for the love of God can someone please get this man a shirt so I can concentrate,” she quips.
But, resolutions are difficult and it’s where the film falters most expressly. Even if I’d seen the trailer for neither of the two Snow White incarnations to hit the screen this year I’ve managed to suss out that one of them is darker than the other, and Singh’s is not that one. The deliberate attempts for comic relief from the dwarves (with varying results) and Nathan Lane (successful throughout), the joyous colour palette, the humour it all points to something charmingly simple and I should not be as put out by its conclusion. But the quick resolving of arcs, a happenstance reappearance of a character once thought lost and much too much too cheerful closing (for me) make me smile at its pleasantness but still feel ultimately unfulfilled. And, then revealing that the only thing the Queen ever used at her disposable was magic ends up really rubbing me the wrong way. For, the crux of all these fairy-tales was always the humanistic aspect. If the take-away is that the only reason any ever loved the Queen, the only reason she ever was beautiful was magic then the film’s conflict seems petered down. The audience need not look for parallels with real life because it’s not as if the thing that was evil ever had any legitimate goodness to trick us, it was all just “magic”. And, as per normal, it may be a case of me digging too deep but such a resolution dilutes so much of what could have made this tale truly revisionist.
But it is fun. Most times. 
What Can You Lose? / C+
* What’s a review from me without a random and obscure Sondheim reference for theatre geeks? Into the Woods for the win when it comes to revisionist fairy-tale. Obviously.

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