Once upon a time, pursuing wolves frighten horses drawing a carriage, and it tumbles down a hill. Dying, the pregnant woman inside orders her grieving husband Frederick (Sam Neill) to cut the baby from her womb, so that at least it might live. Years later, the infant is now headstrong young Lilli (Taryn Davis), who is resentful of her father's upcoming marriage to Claudia (Sigourney Weaver). Claudia is devoted to the memory of her own mother and installs a magic mirror that belonged to her in a wardrobe in her private room. More time passes; Lilli is now an adult, but her relationship with the now-pregnant Claudia has never improved, though Claudia has never done her any ill. Claudia loses her baby, and on the same night, gazes into her mother's mirror, which shows her an image of herself young and beautiful. She determines to rid herself of Lilli. Lilli is walking near the forest when Claudia's mute brother Gustav (Miroslav Taborski) draws a knife and chases the frightened young woman into the forest. She evades him, so he kills a pig and takes the heart to a delighted Claudia, who believes it to be Lilli's heart. She has Gustav put the heart in a stew cooking in the kitchen, and that night as she dines with Frederick, Lilli eats the stew with great pleasure. Later, Frederick and some men search for Lilli in the rainy forest.
Lilli takes refuge from wolves in a ruined castle, where she's confronted by seven vagabonds who've banned together to seek a lost gold mind. Will (Gil Bellows), scarred during the Crusades, is around Lilli's own age and resents her presence, but the older Lars (Brian Glover) is friendlier to her. The mirror tells Claudia that Lilli is still alive, so in the forest where Claudia keeps a shrine to her dead baby, she casts a spell designed to kill her stepdaughter. Lilli, helping the men in their mine, is almost smothered in a cave-in; she's rescued, but one of the men dies. The mirror again tells Claudia that Lilli still lives. Whirling in a black gown, Claudia conjures a wind that strikes the forest; giant trees topple all around Lilli and the men, killing Lars, but Lilli still lives. So the mirror now transforms Claudia into a bald old hag, and she goes into the forest herself. She offers an apple to Lilli, who takes one bite and falls into a trance that no one can tell from death. She's placed in a stained-glass coffin and lowered into the ground, but the agonized Will, who's fallen in love with her, lifts her from the coffin and a piece of apple falls from her mouth. She returns to life, and they all head for the castle. She arrives in time to interrupt Claudia in the act of slashing Frederick's throat, then confronts Lilli in a room full of mirrors. (There's a hint that Claudia had a part in the death of Lilli's mother.) Lilli stabs not Claudia but her mirror image. It bursts apart, shredding and burning Claudia to death.
This bold movie out-grims the Brothers Grimm, telling their oft-told tale as a horror movie/adventure -- and it works. In fact, the weakness of the movie is precisely that the story is so familiar, but the changes wrought by the writers and director keep it fresh for most of its length. It's handsomely designed, using real locations and costumes that are never too grand for the setting. Weaver is clearly having a great time as the not-so-wicked stepmother who eventually becomes a vengeful witch. Especially for a fairy tale, the characters are complex and not necessarily always likable; even Lilli (who is never called "Snow White") has a hard edge, and her "Prince Charming" is a bitter, scarred commoner. It's a shame this attractive, imaginative film didn't have any theatrical release in the United States; originality, especially in a field as well-ploughed as fairy tales, should be encouraged.