The Huntsman: Winter’s War review: “a breezy fantasy spin-off with plenty of Chris Hemsworth’s easy charm”

Hemsworth goes it alone as the waywardly accented Huntsman in an eye-catching if plot-holey prequel/sequel to the Snow White story

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★★★

After turning the Snow White story on its head and rolling her around in the mud a little, the makers of Snow White and the Huntsman have cast her aside and given The Huntsman top billing in a breezy spin-off fantasy adventure. But apart from dulling the feminist edge that Kristen Stewart brought, the obvious drawback here is that Chris Hemsworth must carry the movie. Yes, his shoulders are broad, but his performances are never too hefty.

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His “Scootish” accent also leaves a bit to be desired, so it’s just as well that he has a naturally imposing presence and plenty of easy charm to fall back on. Still, he’s upstaged by the women again, among them Jessica Chastain as Sara, the huntswoman he trains alongside and later calls his wife, years before encountering Snow White in the woods. They’re brought together by Emily Blunt, who elegantly strikes a balance between deep hurt and bitter hate as Freya, queen of a  kingdom where all sorts of Celtic accents collide (Chastain seems to be doing “Oirish”) and she rules, not with an iron fist, but with magic fingers that can raise ice from the ground.  

Evidently, supernatural abilities and psychotic tendencies run in the family, as Freya is also the sister of the fabulously evil Ravenna. Charlize Theron reprises that role, with her gold Dior look and eyes like silver daggers, but hers is only a small part. She reigns over a different territory, while Freya raises an army of kidnapped children to make up for the one she lost when her lover betrayed her. Her heart is frozen and she shows no mercy when the Huntsman and Sara – brought up to lead that army – break a cardinal rule and fall in love.

Cut to seven years later, after the events of the first film, and Snow White (unseen), having usurped her wicked stepmother and gotten rid of that pesky mirror, orders the Huntsman to retrieve it before it finds its way into the Ice Queen’s frigid hands.

So, this is part-prequel, part-sequel, and first-time feature director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan does a fair job of trying to even out the action. But there are a few slow-going boggy parts as the Huntsman wanders through the woods. He has only four dwarfs for company this time: the wryly amusing double-act of Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, plus Sheridan Smith, brightening every scene she’s in as a freckled ladette, while Alexandra Roach is her dippier gal pal. 

Nicolas-Troyan lightens the fairy-tale gloom of the previous film in all aspects, with just the odd scary part – most notably a bruising encounter with a musclebound goblin. The fight scenes are edited with a hyperactive energy, but the director’s speciality is visual effects (he earned an Oscar nomination in that category for his work on Snow White and the Huntsman) and, as before, the fairy-tale world he creates is a cool and glittering spectacle marked out by ice and stone and metal.

Nicolas-Troyan can dazzle when needed and throws in a few stunts to keep up the pace, but there are plot holes he can’t fill, like the absence of Snow White from the picture and the lack of what might have been a fleshier love triangle. After all, Kristen Stewart’s off-screen antics with director Rupert Sanders on the first film (prompting their dismissal from the sequel) isn’t totally out of keeping with her grungier Snow White. 

Any cracks are very efficiently papered over and the result, while not seamless, still has lots to offer, with sterling performances from the female contingent and a couple of other neat twists on the classic fairy tale.

Even Hemsworth, who doesn’t have the most complex character to work with, is certainly game when it comes to sending up that macho image. When he steps into Sheridan Smith’s path, asking what she wants, she tells him she’d like nothing more than to see him dance around with no clothes on.

If he ever finds the courage to bare his soul, too, he might finally earn his stripes as a Hollywood movie star.

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The Huntsman: Winter’s War is released in cinemas on Friday 8th April