The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

A follow-up to Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) minus star Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders after they landed themselves in tabloid purgatory, The Huntsman: Winter’s War risks feeling somewhat superfluous. But I liked Sanders’ film rather more than some and was reasonably interested in seeing where else this material might turn for inspiration without its apparent lynchpin. This proves to be another classic Grimm story, that of the Snow Queen, but here The Huntsman risks treading into territory already visited by Disney’s distinctly more cutesy take on that material, Frozen (2013), and has to contend with an awkward narrative ploy that sees the film functioning partly as prequel and as sequel to Sanders’ film. The first third of The Huntsman: Winter’s War provides an unwieldy hunk of backstory as it depicts Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron) during one of her annexations by assassination of a royal husband, whilst her sister Freya (Emily Blunt) hovers in her wake. Freya became a dread magic queen like her sister after her princeling paramour seemed to murder their baby child: the horror of such a grotesque act awoke the magic talents Freya was deliberately suppressing, manifesting as a lethal gift for controlling ice and conjuring illusions, and she set herself up in a kingdom based in the frozen north – which, judging by the accents, is somewhere around Dundee, but by the architecture seems closer to Minas Tirith.

Freya made it her quest to conquer the north whilst her sister marauded in the south, and assembled an army of captured children, raising them as fearsome warriors dubbed her Huntsmen, whilst forbidding any of them to love. But when two of the best and brightest of her warlike clan, Eric and Sara, grow up to look like Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, well, that rule’s bound to get tested somewhat. Right at the point when they were about to flee Freya’s clutches, Eric and Sara found their secret had been recognised by the vigilant queen and they were forced to fight their fellows, climaxing when Freya separates the lovers with a wall of ice, through which Eric sees Sara murdered. The story then finally jumps forward seven years, to after the death of Ravenna and the recapture of Snow White’s kingdom, where Eric is now living a quiet life. He’s tracked down by William (Sam Claflin, who looks like he’s aged about twenty years since the last film), his former rival for the Queen’s affection, and asked to track down Ravenna’s mirror, which has been stolen whilst being shipped out of the kingdom and eventually finishes up in the clutches of a mob of goblins. Eric is initially uninterested in the quest, but is stirred into action when he realises Freya is spying on him and that she wants the mirror, which could make her near unstoppable, for herself. He’s joined in his quest by his dwarf friend Nion (Nick Frost), and Nion’s bilious cousin Gryff (Rob Brydon). Eric is the only person surprised when Sara turns up and rescues him from some other Huntsmen about to kebab him: she reports that she’s only recently been released from Freya’s dungeon, and that far from being killed, she saw Eric running away and abandoning her. 

Where Sanders’ original film filched some ideas from John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) in trying to deepen a fairy tale mythos with the authentically medieval idea that human order is merely an expression and extrapolation of a natural order. The Huntsman also resembles Ronnie Yu and David Wu’s The Bride With White Hair films, particularly the second instalment where the titular character retreats into imperious misanthropy and commands a cultivated army of underlings to wage a war against the treacherous human heart, right down to the touch of Freya’s hair turning white once she experiences soul-crushing betrayal. Blunt is customarily excellent as Freya, managing to seem cruelly self-righteous and emotionally fragmented at once, making her character a potentially interesting antiheroine. Meanwhile Theron returns to provide more traditional, gleeful villainy and grande dame showboating, as Ravenna is reincarnated as the spirit emanating from her old magic mirror. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a first-time helmsman promoted from the special effects team that worked on the first film, doesn’t evince here the flashes of visual inspiration Sanders conjured. He manages to turn in an entirely acceptable boilerplate sword-and-sorcery yarn, with too much emphasis on the former and not enough imagination when it comes to the latter. Oddly, although an FX chieftain, Nicolas-Troyan is very restrained, even tardy in jazzing up his pseudo-historical setting with glimpses of the fantastical: his goblins are envisioned more as vaguely humanoid apes, and when some fairies turn up late in the story to give the heroes some help, it seems like an afterthought. 

Magic seems to otherwise be the sole provenance of wicked ladies, transmuting their emotional quandaries into physical manifestations: when Freya freezes people out, it’s quite literal. In the first film the use of magic as metaphor seemed apt for a tale that evoked the supplanting of one generation of film star beauty by another, where here the tension manifests in Freya’s desire to inhabit the role of absolute matriarch whilst fending off all hint of emotion. But the fidgety structure can’t make space to contend with the interesting idea that Eric and Sara are bound to her as a mother figure whilst also despising her as a monster. Perhaps the most arresting effect comes when Ravenna is reborn from the mirror, flakes of gilt peeling off her form and drifting into the air, creating a flock of golden birds. Here, all too briefly, Nicolas-Troyan seems in touch with alchemistic dream-scape this sort of fare should exist in. The pleasures here mostly come from the extremely agreeable cast. It’s fun seeing Chastain trying to get her warrior-woman mojo working and bringing her trademark flashing intensity to her quibbling with Hemsworth, whilst Frost and Brydon, whose pudgy, dopy characters find themselves inelegantly matched with two dwarf women, sharp-tongued Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and moony Doreena (Alexandra Roach), bring requisite comic relief with verbal skill, but still they’re an element Nicolas-Troyan can’t be bothered pretending interests him by the last couple of reels.

Hemsworth remains one of the great question marks of contemporary film: marble-mouthed as his pseudo-Scots accent gets at points, his glints of swaggering charm and self-mocking humour have authentic movie star force, a persona that calls to mind swashbucklers of ages past from Flynn to Ford. If only someone could provide him with a stronger script and more attentive direction. Here Eric, although taking over as official focus of the franchise, is often surprisingly portrayed as out of his depth, taking on foes he can’t bring down and constantly rumbled by the women in his life, and is finally left bereft of any real signature moment of heroism save a scene where he makes a lunatic leap from a great height where the very stupidity of the act becomes a joke that doesn’t cover up how much trouble the script has in thinking of interesting action situations. Note to future franchise filmmakers: don’t relentlessly enfeeble your would-be iconic hero. Nicolas-Troyan gives away his lack of instinct for capturing the drama in physical heroism when he shoots Eric battling off a mob of goblins in lackadaisical long-shot, before pinching one of the better gags from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) whilst revealing a total absence of the emotional context that made it work originally. The Huntsman finally does gather an inkling of the operatic fervour it could have wielded as our heroes confront the weird sisters and a few nasty home truths emerge, leading to a climax where this damaged, surgically created family wars within itself and focuses on the truest villain in their midst. The curse of The Huntsman: Winter’s War is also what makes it a tolerable viewing experience -- it is competence objectified. But it’s true that somehow Frozen actually managed to wield more of the outsized poetic force of this work’s core ideas.

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