The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Written by Charlotte Stevens.

Photo from the article The immediate enjoyment of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (Tommy Wirkola, 2013) comes from its breezy action spectacle; the reason to keep thinking/talking about it is in its interesting treatment of female characters. In the film, the brother and sister team of the title have made a career as bounty hunters, tracking down and eliminating evil witches preying on townsfolk. Dressed in skin-tight leather, possessing impressive (steampunk-esque) weapons and gadgets, and confidently cool in their deep knowledge of witches and how to combat them, the siblings fight side-by-side to smite evil. Action films are not well-known for subtle or diverse representation of women: Yvonne Tasker’s Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (1993) is an excellent text on issues and precedents surrounding female characters in typically-masculine genres, and “the female body in terms of masculinity,” which is Tasker’s elaboration of previous work on male bodies in action cinema. In this Alternate Take I intend to demonstrate that the bodies of female characters in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters are more than usually significant.

Tasker argues that female characters in action cinema tend to fall into a few categories, none of which are particularly favourable. The heroine-as-sidekick is usually a tomboy, whatever her age, who “can be read as a girl who has not accepted the responsibilities of adult womanhood.” She is neither a “responsible” woman nor a man, but is still defined by her (slightly subservient) relationship to the hero. In the case of Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), her role as a fighting heroine and mother are in conflict; in consequence she “is defined as insane, without a place in American society.” Similarly out of place is the ‘comic-strip’ heroine, such as the scantily-clad, sword-wielding title character of Red Sonja (1985). Tasker argues that the comic-strip heroine possesses “exaggerated sexual characteristics [and] exaggerated physical powers, in swordplay or marksmanship, a strength which marks them as transgressive, as perverse.” The near-equal status in action films of a female sidekick to the hero is a less frequent representation than the typical woman-as-victim character, whose rape or murder is a narrative device, intended “to provide a motivation for the hero’s revenge.” His excesses of violence are excused by his anger; except for certain subgenres, such as the rape-revenge film (see I Spit on Your Grave [1978]), the woman is a passive victim and barely developed as a character.

In reading Tasker, female characters in action films are either immature, transgressive, irresponsible, or victims. However, despite giving the opening voice-over, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) is not a traditional hero character to his sister’s heroine. Of Tasker’s categories, Wirkola’s Gretel (Gemma Arterton) is closest to being sidekick tomboy - she is equal to her brother, and indeed is the only female speaking role not costumed in skirts - and has taken on the itinerant life of a bounty hunter, a life free from traditional obligations. However, these obligations are not raised in the narrative, nor is Gretel’s relationship to domesticity (or femininity) questioned or problemetized. If the responsibilities of adult womanhood are some combination of becoming a wife and mother, keeping a home, and/or holding down stable employment, these are not presented as goals for Gretel (either as failed hopes or as aspirations). The fable-like nature of the film’s story does not have room to describe similar goals for any characters - the evil witches want to sacrifice their kidnapped victims to make themselves fireproof, everyone else wants to stop the witches - but neither is the lack of such domestic desires explicitly a problem of Gretel’s character. The film ends with the addition of Ben (Thomas Mann) the fanboy and Edward (Derek Mears) the helpful troll to Gretel and Hansel’s witch hunting crew, but not as a family unit: Ben is the apprentice, Edward is a monster, Hansel is her brother, and to none of these males is she a wife or mother. In relation to Tasker’s tomboy category, this is a definitively unproblematic rejection of the responsibilities of adult womanhood. Gretel is part of a misfit gang, none of whom fit in a civilized world (the genre nod to westerns in this final desert-based sequence is also notable). Aside from a plunging neckline and skin-tight leather, there are only shades of the comic-book heroine, as her fighting ability appears matched with her brother’s and is the result of training, not magic: their supernatural ability is protection against witches’ attacks. In the logic of the film, this defensive protection is not their transgression, but a legacy from their mother.

The siblings are much more equal than one might expect; for example, it is Gretel’s gun thrusting into the frame from off-camera that interrupts the sheriff’s summary execution of an accused witch and introduces the adult siblings. Also, in the extended sequence during the second act of the film in which they are separated, approximately equal screen time is given to their search for each other. While Gretel does need to be rescued in the climactic cliff-top battle, her abilities as a skilled fighter up to that point (and following it) refuse a reading of this an average damsel in distress scenario. Indeed, Hansel is refreshingly progressive in his interaction with female characters, and two choices in particular stand out: with Mina at the ‘healing waters’, and in his reunion with Gretel in the cellar beneath their childhood home. After he is kidnapped from the town and tied upside-down in a tree, Hansel is rescued by Mina, the accused witch saved earlier in the film. She takes him to a pond, where she begins to clean his wounds while hinting she wants to have sex with him. When her hints turn to disrobing, Hansel immediately stands to give her privacy in her nudity and grabs his shirt as if he'd leave. Mina’s nudity is not shot in an overly-exploitative manner, nor does Hansel leer at her; the sequence is not about Mina as a seductress or Hansel as a typically promiscuous man, and despite being entirely clichéd, it is presented as a mutually agreeable encounter. Similarly interesting is Hansel’s reunion with Gretel, a few sequences after she was attacked by the sheriff’s posse (who blame the siblings for the witches’ interest in the town). Gretel has been visibly injured; Hansel sees these wounds as they are, and neither sibling pretends that Gretel accidentally injured herself, or that she brought it on herself. He asks “who beat [her] up” and offers vengeance (which had already been meted out by Gretel and the troll Edward), but never implies that, as a woman, Gretel was weak or in need of constant protection. In the final fight against Muriel (Famke Janssen), the head bad witch, Hansel holds a shovel against her bared throat, and Gretel stands on it to sever Muriel’s head. They trade off on watching each other’s backs and saving each other through the film, and make sure to share the ultimate victory.

The evil witches in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters are not terribly well-dimensioned in the narrative, being rather explicit baddies in their willingness to kidnap and murder children. They, too, have rejected the traditional responsibilities of adult womanhood, and as is typical for stories about evil witches, they live apart from the towns and from civilization. Additionally, a bad witch can be identified by her “rot,” or physical transformation seemingly involving scaly skin or extra limbs. As an aside, there are neat ideas in the costume and makeup design of the witches. There is an elemental and geographical specificity to the witches - the desert lizard witch at the end, the cracked and ash-covered main villain, who is driven by her desire to overcome her own inflammability - and a range of physical types to the actors in the roles.

However, the ‘good’ witches - Gretel, Gretel’s mother, Hansel’s temporary sidekick Mina - are not in the business of killing kids, and therefore get to keep their pretty faces. Obviously, it is unpleasant that all the female characters in the film are witches, and that the way to tell a bad witch is her ugliness. However, it can be argued that within the film’s action-fantasy logic, there is an interesting argument implicitly advanced by the film: that their ‘goodness’ and therefore their beauty, means their good looks become a kind of camouflage. The opening credits of the film set up a parody of modern tabloid culture, where Hansel and Gretel are seen to grow up and grow into their witch-hunting career through a sequence of animated press clippings. This lost childhood lived in the public eye, preserved in Hansel and Gretel’s fanboy Ben’s poster-covered walls, his autograph-hunting and his scrapbook-keeping, suggests the possibility of the film’s awareness of pervasiveness, power and (potential) harm of media representations. The opening credits and subsequent riffs on the theme have an allegorical function within the narrative that advances an argument more complicated than pretty = good; instead, it’s not a far step to take to thinking of the implications of living in a world where pretty does mean ‘good’, or a moral/cultural/spiritual superiority.

This tension highlights the problem of representing women (and of any representational minority): the appearance of just one bears the burden of representation, and when there are more than one (and they're all either monstrous and ugly or ‘good’ and pretty) it is hard to be entirely comfortable with the film’s overall representation of women. Does the fairytale setting excuse an uncomfortable argument that beauty equals goodness? No, not entirely. But while the escapist pleasures are diluted by the intentional and unintentional reminders of our own tabloid/celebrity culture, they are enhanced by the unproblematic tomboy qualities of Gretel.

This Alternate Take was published on June 24, 2013.

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