Director: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgård, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter
Rising above one’s station and breaking away from unjust oppression is the prototypical fairy tale made famous by Charles Perrault’s CINDERELLA. In the years since the Disney animated classic arrived, many have put their own spin on it. EVER AFTER, ELLA ENCHANTED, A CINDERELLA STORY and even other rags-to-riches stories like PRETTY WOMAN and KINGSMAN have put forth the notion that everyone is capable of greatness. Now, in the post-modern feminist era where a man rescuing a woman is seen as a cinematic taboo, we’re given director Kenneth Branagh’s very traditional take, CINDERELLA. While screenwriter Chris Weitz has some fun showing that our heroine is no pushover, and the film fleshes out some things a little better than the animated iteration, this adaptation isn’t as unconventional and unique as those glass slippers on Cinderella’s feet.
Once upon a time, there lived a beautiful, happy family in a palatial countryside estate filled with sunshine, a menagerie of animals and lots of laughter. Until one day, Mom dies, leaving wide-eyed optimist Ella (played in later years by Lily James) and her merchant father (Ben Chaplin) on their own, surviving on the mantra “Have courage and be kind.” Many years down the line, their little kingdom grows when Dad marries widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and she and her obnoxious daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera) move in. Things begin okay, but quickly turn once Ella’s father dies, leaving the wicked stepmonster in charge. Forced into servitude, the newly nicknamed “Cinderella” is reaching her breaking point. But fate has something far greater in store for her. Whilst out on a protest horse ride in the forest (as one does), she meets Kit, a.k.a. Prince Charming (Richard Madden). Since she didn’t give him any information, the Prince convinces his dying father the King (Derek Jacobi) to throw a royal ball for all to attend, hoping Cinderella will come. However, Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters set out to sabotage the reunion. Never fear, as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) creates a show stopping, swoon-worthy ensemble to help our heroine find true love – so long as she gets home before the clock strikes 12.
There are things that work in this live-action version and things that really don’t. Let’s begin with the latter. Narration is incessant; it’s wall to wall throughout the first act, then relents for a while only to maddeningly return later and continue off and on through act three. Meant to be like a storybook coming to life, all it does is infuriate with its “movies for the blind” quality. We can see Ella writing in her diary about her magical night; why does the narration have to tell us that’s what she’s doing? Though the race to beat the clock sequence is thrilling, Fairy Godmother’s magical transformation of the pumpkin and animals felt like obligatory CG mayhem. Bonham Carter (who famously said in FIGHT CLUB that “the condom is the glass slipper of our generation”) looks fantastic, but goes a little too broad with the material, which up to that point is pretty straight-forward. Also disheartening is that James singing “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” and Bonham Carter’s “Bibbity Bobbity Boo” are relegated to the end credits. For a film that could have used a few transportive musical numbers to break up the flat narrative, this feels like a wasted opportunity. Though the filmmakers create a magical place that’s easy to get lost in, their additions feel a little unnecessary. Do we need a third act scheme between The Captain (Stellan Skarsgård) and Lady Tremaine? Not really, but at least it’s something different.
Branagh restrains himself, eschewing his usual shenanigans of over-the-top Shakespearean dramatics and canted angles (of which there’s blessedly only one). In their place is a light-hearted, entertaining, beguiling atmosphere where actors with pathos can shine. The royal ball sequence is absolutely mesmerizing, lovely and wonderful. They say “God is in the details,” and no one seems to understand that better than CINDERELLA’s power combo of Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume design. Locations and wardrobe come alive with their ornate details. The chinoisere that adorns the walls of Lady Tremaine’s manse oozes glamour, as does Blanchett’s wardrobe, looking like it’s borrowed from Rita Hayworth’s estate. Ella’s household feels as repressive as those corsets under those costumes. Even the way Ella’s iconic baby blue ball gown skirt twists and twirls is simply enchanting, sparkling and superb – as is James’ performance.
While I feel like the filmmakers missed a chance to put a modern twist on the old-fashioned, super girlie tale, what’s there serves as a good reminder to be nice to everyone – including your tormenters. So in that regard, this film’s blights are all forgiven.
3.5 out of 5
CINDERELLA opens on March 13.