Why the world would need a live-action update of a beloved Disney animation classic, I do not know. Now that it’s arrived, though, let’s be thankful this Cinderella is a magical, joyous surprise.
Kenneth Branagh’s new film is not exactly an update, but this glass slipper has not lost its luster. In fact, the movie’s production design (by Dante Ferretti) and costumes (by Sandy Powell) are gorgeous, polished to an expectedly professional sheen. But don’t be fooled; Cinderella’s not all about the look. The film is also deeply felt and well-acted, an altogether better experience than it had any right to be.
The trifecta of stars in its lead roles up the ante, and their previous work should attract a large and diverse audience for a film so clearly geared toward the younger set. The (almost) perpetually cheerful Lily James (Downton Abbey’s wild cousin) takes on the title role, along with a deeper-than-you’d-think Prince Charming (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden aka the hunky Rob Stark), and a truly wicked and depraved stepmother (Cate Blanchett, in full-on fabulous mode). The relationships among these three, and the various side characters, makes for a predictable but wholly satisfying film-going experience.
The film’s opening scenes quickly establish its main premise: that kindness is its own form of magic, and will always trump evil.
Young Ella lives with her beautiful, good-natured mother (Hayley Atwell) and her international merchant father (Ben Chaplin) in a well-appointed but not-too-grand manor in the country. The walls are papered with scenes from Asia, per Ella’s father’s travels, and the little girl spends her days running in fields and talking with her friends, the house mice. All in all, it’s an enchanted childhood.
When Ella’s mother passes due to a sudden illness, she and her father keep on keeping on, until he asks the now teenage Ella if she wouldn’t mind him falling in love again. Enter the Stepmother, an eagle-eyed vision in deep shades of green—her dresses are out of this world fabulous, really—and her two uppity daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera, another Downton alum, the kitchen wench Daisy). The threesome are nearly intolerable from the start, begging the question (as in the original animated film), why would Ella’s dad care about this woman?
We learn that she is a widow, and soon she loses another husband. Ella’s father dies on a business trip to a distant land, and the Blanchett’s stepmother is sad, though not for the reasons you’d expect: her assets have dwindled past the point of living in extreme comfort! For her part, Ella breaks down and turns to her mice friends—including the chunky Gus-Gus—who inhabit her newly appointed bedroom: the attic.
Her entire existence becomes less-than her stepmother and sister’s as she takes on the duties of the fired house staff, earning her nickname, Cinder-Ella. She takes the dismal situation in stride, whistling while she works per se until a particularly vile comment from the wicked lady of the house sends her riding bareback into the woods on her trusty steed, tears in her eyes and escape on her mind.
There she meets Kit while he and his men are on a stag hunt. The two form an instant bond as Ella, unaware that “Kit” is a stand-in for “Prince,” asserts her intelligence and independence. James and Madden have a spark of genuine emotional chemistry between them, and though their initial encounter is shot in a dizzying circular motion, perhaps the real intention was to indicate just how head-over-heels they immediately fall.
You likely know the rest of the story: Cinderella, as she’s now called, wants to go to the ball where Kit will choose his princess—the future queen—but her stepmother forbids it; a fairy godmother, played here by Helena Bonham-Carter as a bumbling, babbling, and quite lovable fool, creates a dress, a carriage, and a couple glass slippers so that Cinderella may attend; she wows Kit once more with her feminine wiles and magnetism (James truly does glow on screen, and her “kindness is the best policy” act hardly gets old) before the clock strikes midnight, whereupon her entire get-up reverts back to the cinder-y mess it was, though not before she leaves behind one of those slippers; Kit vows to find the girl who lost the glass shoe if it’s the last thing he does.
Of course he finds her, and of course they wind up living happily ever after, but many of this film’s best moments come from material that has been added by Branagh and writer Chris Weitz. Kit’s relationship with his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) is complicated, at least for a children’s film; the king is dying and wants to see his son married and his kingdom looked after, two things which compete with each other until the very end of his life. His final scene with Kit is beautiful and surprisingly sad. I don’t remember the last time I heard a father and son tell each other “I love you” quite as convincingly.
At the other extreme of emotion, the scenes involving Ella and her stepmother are steeped in an almost sociopathic level of hatred. Blanchett plays the role entirely unsympathetically, even though her character has plenty to be sad about and to make us feel bad about. She is power-hungry and conniving, and she dislikes Ella because the girls brightness, shining just like her mother and father’s personalities, lives on in the house. She is a fun character to hate, and when Ella has her chance to unleash her own dislike it feels like a very satisfying, long-time-coming conclusion.
And the visual aspects, rendered in only-passable CGI but with the gorgeous sets and costumes I’ve already described, take the classic quality of the animated film and up the ante for a new generation. The carriage’s race back to the country as the clock strikes midnight—complete with Cinderella’s driver, horses, and valets turning back into the animals out of which they were made—is thrilling and funny, and drew a mid-film roar of applause from the audience I was sitting in. Just minutes earlier, Cinderella’s entrance into the ball in her voluminous sky-blue gown earned a hush of anticipation and admiration.
This live-action adaptation of Cinderella need not have been made, and I would argue that Drew Barrymore’s Ever After is a more interesting, feminist positioning of the original fairytale. However, when a cast is this uniformly solid, and when a design crew this talented fashions a gorgeous, whimsical world in which to live in for an hour or two, why not go along for the ride?
There is much to appreciate about a “children’s” film which values the impact of personal loss and the persistent necessity of kindness. Because Cinderella does both, the film winds up being a warm, richly realized, and powerful remake of an enduring classic.