Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Snow White and the Huntsman

Review Date: 5-29-12

Release Date: 6-1-12

Runtime: 127 minutes

Period: Vaguely Medieval

Costume Designer: Colleen Atwood

Some stories are so good that they just need to be reinterpreted every once in a while. It is therefore no surprise that Snow White has had countless incarnations over the years. The flavor of the latest go-round, Snow White and the Huntsman, is distinctly dark and scary – miles away from the sweet, frothy cartoons and singing birds that have come before. This film is fertile ground for social commentary, and if you are a university-level Women’s Studies major needing material for a thesis, look no further. This is a post-feminist, apocalyptic Snow White, complete with a villain oozing misandry. Sound intriguing?

Visually, the film hearkens to Lord of the Rings and even to Star Wars at times – the production value is simply breathtaking. It is as much a science fiction film as it is a period epic. The film is gritty, grimy, and dark, and it pulls punches you didn’t see coming. It is a huge film, an enormous chef d’oeuvre, and if you can wrap your head around the fact that it was directed by a first-time feature director, you will not believe your eyes.

For brevity’s sake, I will refer to this film, Snow White and the Huntsman, as SWATH from now on. It’s a lot to type!

The traditional tale of Snow White remains more or less intact: A queen in a far-off land pricks her finger, and three drops of blood land in the snow. She wishes for a baby daughter with skin like snow, hair black as night, and lips red as blood. She becomes pregnant, has a baby girl, and names her Snow White. The queen soon dies.

The grieving king and his men respond to a battle challenge by an army outside the castle walls. This army, in SWATH, is composed of strangely droid-like soldiers, who shatter into shards of obsidian or coal when struck. The king and his men discover a woman held prisoner in one of the army’s wagons. She is stunningly beautiful. Meet Ravenna (Charlize Theron).

Bewitched by her beauty, the widower King takes Ravenna for his new wife. It turns out that she is completely vain, completely psycho and completely obsessed with her mirror (which just so happens to be magic). “Mirror, mirror, on the wall: who is the fairest of them all?” The mirror, unable to lie, answers her with lines like, “Is there no end to your power and beauty, my queen?” What we come to find out is that Ravenna must feed on the youth of other young women in order to stay young – she literally sucks the youth out of their mouths, leaving the girls decrepit, wasted and ancient.

In SWATH, the new queen then kills the king in a power grab. She drives out the remaining royal family, but little Snow White is left behind. Ravenna banishes Snow White to a tower where she lives a solitary existence. Meanwhile, Ravenna, her creepy brother Finn (Sam Spruell), and other droid-like soldiers take over the castle. Ravenna runs the kingdom into the ground, leaving it scorched and ravished, its inhabitants starving, demoralized and destitute.

Eventually the magic mirror tells Ravenna that she is no longer the fairest in the land; that Snow White has eclipsed her beauty, and that Ravenna basically needs to eat Snow White’s still-beating heart in order to remain the most fair in that land, and to stay young forever.

Ravenna gets her creepy brother to fetch Snow White (Kristen Stewart) from the tower, but the clever girl escapes and runs into the Dark Forest. The Dark Forest is like a bad acid trip, and it’s a scary, dangerous place for a young girl to be alone. Ravenna forces the drunk/widower Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to go into the Dark Forest to find Snow White. Ravenna promises the Huntsman that she will resurrect his dead wife in exchange for his safe return of Snow White to the castle.

The Huntsman, Finn, and some droid soldiers head into the forest, and have no trouble finding Snow White. When Finn reveals that there is no way Ravenna could ever resurrect anyone from the dead, Huntsman takes Snow White and runs. (Costume note: at this point, he cuts her long dress into a tunic.) Huntsman and Snow White then come upon a community of women and children who wear hijabs and paddle around in boats. They are a peaceful people, with ritual scars on their cheeks to prevent the queen from kidnapping them to steal their beauty. They give Snow White a safe place to rest for the night.

Finn and his band of droid soldiers – now with the addition of William (Sam Claflin), who is actually Snow White’s cousin, deep undercover in hopes of finding and saving her – find Snow White at the scar-people village and start launching burning spears into their thatched houses. Soon, the whole riverside is on fire, and Huntsman and Snow White are on the lam again.

They run into the seven dwarves (CGI/real live characters portrayed by Bob Hoskins, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Iam McShane to name a few) and the dwarves lead them into Fairyland, a magical sanctuary of sorts with lots of butterflies, pixies and smiling animals. Eventually, the evil band of Ravenna’s henchmen find them and there is a battle. Huntsman kills Finn, and one of the bad guys kills one of the dwarves. Ravenna, psychically impacted by her brother’s death, writhes on the floor and somehow sucks the life out of him telepathically, taking his youth to sustain herself. He dies looking like a very old man.

Ravenna is pissed off and on a rampage. She sets out to avenge her brother’s death, to kill Snow White herself. She disguises herself as William (who has now revealed his true identity, much to Snow White’s delight), and offers Snow White an apple… which is, of course, poisoned. Snow White takes a bite and starts to choke. Huntsman tries to chop Ravenna with his axe, but she turns into a congress of ravens that take flight back to the castle. Huntsman and William fear that Snow White has been fatally poisoned. William kisses her on the lips, but it does not revive her. All seems lost – for everyone. Ravenna no longer has the promise of Snow White’s beating heart… or does she?

Snow White’s body lies on a big slab in the castle, dressed in white, awaiting her funeral. Huntsman makes a big speech and then kisses her on the lips. He walks away, crushed. Her eyelids flutter – the spell has been broken! Snow White escapes the castle grounds and rallies the people of her kingdom to fight Ravenna. Big battle scenes ensue. Snow White goes hand-to-hand combat with Ravenna, and eventually Ravenna is mortally wounded.

Flowers spontaneously bloom on the scarred trees, and all is right with the world. Snow White is crowned queen of the kingdom, and they lived happily ever after.

SWATH is directed by Rupert Sanders – a first-time feature director (GASP!) who comes from the world of commercials. The film has a glossy sheen to it, and is truly a visual spectacle. It’s kind of a “can’t miss” event for costumes and production design. Colleen Atwood is at the top of her game here, and it is an enormous undertaking that she has once again slam-dunked.

The principal cast doesn’t have a plethora of changes. I think Snow White has about four changes, Ravenna has maybe nine or ten, Huntsman and the seven dwarves have only one change each. It’s the massive background numbers – soldiers, villagers, courtiers, and the like – that make this film such a challenge.

I was lucky enough to attend a screening of SWATH with a Q & A with Ms. Atwood afterward. She talked about this endeavor, and what it really took to get it off the ground. Let’s just reflect on the fact that they custom made 2,000 costumes for the film. TWO. THOUSAND. This includes all of the armor for both armies, which had to be started well in advance of the rest of her prep, due to the fabrication time required to complete the items. It’s a staggering number, when you consider she only had four months of prep.

Atwood said that she had three separate workrooms going in London to build principal and supporting cast, then all of the armor was made here in LA, along with all of the Huntsman’s costumes. The rest of the costumes (another 2,000 costumes) were rented from Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

I’m thinking: That costume supervisor deserves a medal.

Can you imagine all of those plates spinning at once, dealing in different currency, VAT taxes, scheduling, inventorying and tracking all of those costumes? Staying on budget? Making sure everything and everyone is where they should be when they should be? That is a massive, MASSIVE job, and hats off to the costume supervisor for working it all out. Serious kudos.

When talking about the period of the film, Atwood described it as period, but not specific, which I think is actually right on the money. It’s vaguely Medieval, but not really – some of the things you see on these actors were never even a glimmer in the tailor’s eye at that point in history.

Check out Ravenna’s wedding dress – it’s vaguely Medieval, but also super anachronistically fashion-forward, runway-worthy, architectural, and reminiscent of Swedish Christmas straw ornaments.

Swedish Straw Ornament

Swedish Straw Ornament

That’s the Swede in me talking, but the structure of the sleeve/shoulder piece really took me back to the straw ornaments that decorated my grandparents’ house. The gown is breathtaking, and I was lucky enough to see it in person after the screening. Check it out.

The sleeve/shoulder piece is actually made from parchment – it’s pretty wild when you think about it. Atwood collaborated with craftspeople in her workrooms to come up with the shape and structure of these unusual pieces. She referred to them as an “ace team”, which is really high praise.

Charlize Theron is about six feet tall, so you can appreciate the long, slender shape of this garment – look how the skirt is constructed. It’s magical.

Ravenna’s other dresses have details like bird skulls – pictured here. They are not real bird skulls; Atwood says that they were sculpted/cast. The recurring theme in Ravenna’s costumes is death, thus the skulls, and sometimes bones, that you see in her costumes.

Something to note (and gush over) about Ravenna’s costumes is the jewelry and metal work. Wow, wow, wow. All of the earrings, the crowns, the talon-like finger-caps (that double as silverware, beware) – it’s just a gorgeous array of opulence and pure fabulousness.

To think that all of these pieces were custom made for the film, for this one character – it is a luxury that very few costume designers enjoy, and it is breathtaking to see it on screen.

This dress (above) is referred to as the “porcupine dress”, and it is made from leather. Again, Atwood credits one of her ace costume craftspeople for coming up with this unusual way of manipulating the leather so it looks like spiky quills, or scales.

Check out the texture!!!  WOW!!

Check out the texture!!! WOW!!

It’s such an amazing dress – it looks positively thorny, warrior-like and alien! Again, not something you would see in Medieval times, but who cares?! It is the coolest texture ever, and very effective at demonstrating Ravenna’s state of mind at this point in the film – murderous, psychopathic, and unhinged.

Snow White starts her journey in a distressed dress in muted jewel tones. She’s dirty and disheveled from years of internment in the tower.

After Huntsman takes off into the forest with her, he cuts her dress above the knees, turning it into a tunic (much better for stunts, by they way, and she’s wearing some kind of sturdy pants under the dress in any case.) I mean, what are you going to do – it’s an action movie, and a dress would NEVER hold up with all of the stuff that happens to Snow White! Here, she faces off against a giant troll.

When Snow White leads her people into battle, she is in full armor. Her hair is braided in a way that is reminiscent of the Scar-People. Here’s where I digress into my Star Wars comparison. I have scoured the internet for pictures of the Scar-people, and I can’t find any – but their hair is braided and worn in styles very reminiscent of the Star Wars series. In this pic (below) Snow White’s hair is braided in a way that pays homage to her constituents and friends, the Scar-people. Plus, it looks really cool and works well with stunts to keep the majority of her hair out of her face!

The dwarves are an interesting bunch. They were partly CGI and partly live-action. Nick Frost (one of the dwarves) talks about the experience here, and it’s pretty interesting. The dwarves provide comic relief, and of course, as with any group, they need to look similar to each other, but unique and individual within the group. It was really nicely done here – check it out.

I understand that they did use little people wearing facial prosthetics to do some of these scenes where CGI just wasn’t feasible, so it must have been pretty amazing to make a number of different versions of these costumes for not only the actors, but for their photo and stunt doubles, and everything in between.

I could go on for days about this film… and it is possible that I already have. The bottom line is: SEE THE FILM and take it all in this is a massive accomplishment in costume design, and it is breathtaking. I can’t wait to hear how you Frocktalkers like the film!


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