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Non-Review Review: Mirror, Mirror

With Mirror, Mirror, director Tarsem Singh’s record remains unbroken. He’s still a director with a unique and appealing visual style that is struggling to find a proper output. Here, Singh’s stylish direction struggles against a somewhat tired premise and lazy script, managing to create a feast for the eyes that feels strangely lacking in substance. It’s a bit disappointing, if only because there are some interesting and fascinating ingredients, but they’re overwhelmed by tired cliché, a weak central performance, and a script that feels like it was filmed on the first draft.

Belle Swan...

“You are messing with centuries of tried and tested storytelling,” the Prince claims at one point, as our heroine decides to reject the stereotype of fairytale damsel in distress. “It’s been focus-group-ed and it works.” The script probably things it’s being quite clever in setting its action heroine out to deal with her own problems, rather than counting on a Prince to resolve the situation, presenting Snow White’s decision to face her own demons as a firm rebuke to the sexist old fairy tales. Unfortunately, it almost reads as a commentary on the film itself.

We’ve been watching fairy tale princesses make up for decades of objectification for years now. Fiona in Shrek might be the most successful and iconic example, but there were many before and since. If Mirror, Mirror claims to offer us a new spin on a familiar story, it needs more than that. It also needs more than a fairly lame “security vs. liberty” metaphor that is barely developed, as we’re informed the Queen keeps the kingdom controlled through fear.

Killer Queen?

“Need I remind you of the atrocities committed by the beast in the forest?” a tax collector asks attempting to justify a tax hike. It’s an angle barely developed, because it’s so bland and paint-by-numbers. It’s become a go-to trope in stories like this since 9/11. Nine times out of ten, if a cruel ruler of a fairy tale kingdom asserts their authority in response to a mystical threat at the edge of the community, viewers know that there’s a direct connection between the leader and the evil they seek to protect against. Whether the monsters is a lackey or a fabrication, it’s almost expected in a film like this. Still, there’s something decidedly half-hearted in how the film plays the familiar plot device, as if it simply can’t be bothered.

That’s the biggest problem with the script. It seems to act as though it’s offering something relatively new and different, while it never commits fully enough to any of these ideas. It seems cheekily self-aware of its existence as a figment of modern imagination – characters use phrases like “pinky swear” and “tax dollars” – and yet it never pushes the matter. Characters (and mainly actors) might add a few nice quirks or tics, but the script never delivers anything smarter than a paint-by-numbers fairy tale, which means that all the self-aware and none-too-sly gags can’t help but grate. Giving a fairy tale a Rocky or Karate Kid style montage and making jokes about how characters are “mad” doesn’t work if you stick so rigidly to the formula.

Crossing swords...

It doesn’t help that Lily Collins isn’t especially convincing in the lead role. Although she’s had small roles before, this is the actress’ first leading performance in a major motion picture, and she just doesn’t seem ready for it. It’s not that she’s actively bad… she just has no presence. Given the writing, it’s not necessarily a huge slight against her, but Collins can’t transcend that. Julie Roberts and Armie Hammer both make the most of their roles, albeit not entirely successfully, but Collins is completely vacant. She just doesn’t have a screen presence.

Roberts fares a bit better as the evil queen, in that I can see what she’s going for. I particularly like the way that she adopts a more regal and soft accent (almost British) while maintaining her pleasant facade, but lapses into a coarser almost American accent when she’s in foul form. The writing isn’t good enough for Roberts to make a truly memorable villain, but she does try her hardest, and manages one or two nice moments. She does occasionally struggle a bit when faced with the dry and empty cynical snark that the movie tries to give her, especially in the opening narration, where she derides the lead’s name as pretentious and complains that people had no jobs in those fairy tales, for all the time they spent celebrating. It’s not that this sort of cynicism can’t work, but it doesn’t work in context – it seems like the movie is desperately trying to be “hip.”

She's a-courtin'...

Hammer arguably does the best of the leading trio, but that might be down to his reduced role. His Prince is aptly described as a “twit” by one of the dwarves, and it’s not an unfair description – while not an outward parody, the Prince seems just a little insensitive (first when dealing with the dwarves and then by repeatedly “spanking” Snow White during his sword fight. Hammer has developed into quite a fine supporting actor over the past year or so, and he remains one to watch.

All that said, it is worth noting that this is a Tarsem Singh film. That means that it looks wonderful and colourful and rich. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a small clearing in the woods where everything seems to happen, the set design of the palace, the visual design of the kingdom itself, the beast in the woods or even the costumes, it looks impressive. I think Singh is still looking for the right script to suit his impressive visual style, and this isn’t quite it.

All's fair...

Singh seems more interested in the stylish and lavish production design than anything actually happening on screen. Indeed, it seems like his fictional world is a bunch of closely-connected sets rather than a magical kingdom. At one point, Snow White is able to run from the isolated home of the exiled dwarves to the town centre without breaking a sweat. Later on, the Queen is able to make it from the same clearing back to the castle and through her magic mirror over the course of the climactic confrontation. It seems like Julia Roberts literally wondered from one set to another.

That said, Singh has an eye for film, even if he doesn’t seem too concerned with the script he’s shooting. An attack by a pair of wooden puppets is a fascinating little sequence, and there’s something quite macabre about the huts on the Queen’s trip through the looking glass. (I especially like how he keeps her dry despite coming from water.) It’s weird that he should show such loving attention to detail when crafting these set pieces, and yet allow his characters to run through the motions and spout banal witticisms.

Bunny ears in this photo...

Mirror, Mirror looks really good, to be fair. It’s just a shame that there’s no substance to it.

2 Responses

  1. It’s a shame. I wish Singh would pick his scripts more carefully! He makes such stunning looking films but I’m just not that interested in watching them because they do indeed lack substance.

    • Yep. I do hope he can find the right balance at some point in the future. He has this immense talent that just feels… idle.

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