It takes a special type of magic to take something familiar and transform it into something extraordinary. And that is precisely what Kenneth Branagh did with his live-action adaptation of Disney’s Cinderella. To use a metaphor: the fabric of the story remains familiar, but with re-tailoring, it becomes something new and beautiful. This is exactly the Cinderella you know , no twists or turns: from the fairy godmother all the way down to the chubby mouse friends of Cinderella, the glass slippers, the handsome prince and all of the known story beats remain the same. However, this is all elevated by Kenneth Branagh’s direction and Chris Weitz’s sharply written script.. Branagh is know for lavish theatrical experiences that elevate expectations and Weitz is known for young adult fiction and film and together the interpretation they make of the fairy tale feels very much current, smart and timeless all at once.
The first thing apparent when watching the film is how playful it all is. Academy Award Winner Cate Blanchett is the wickedly delightful “evil” stepmother and she brings in a lot of camp and sardonic wit while adding in a layer of empathy to the typically one-note role. Equally as enjoyable are the two evil daughters, played by Downton Abbey’s Sophie McShera and The Borgias’ Holliday Grainger, who bring many laughs through their mean-spirited vapidity and general cluelessness. Helena Bonham Carter is quite wonderful as the “hairy dogmother – I mean ‘fairy godmother’” – a flitty, fashion-obsessed thing who doesn’t have much success in building carriages but is “rather good at shoes;” it was a reminder of why Carter has endured for so long as an actress despite a string of less than stellar roles. The supporting cast is strong in this film, with Branagh making the interesting choice to go multicultural with actors and extras of various age, genders and ethnicities (for instance, Black British actor Nonso Anozie makes a wonderful presence as the captain of the royal guard) that make this vision of a Disney kingdom feel as inclusive as it is enchanting.
Did I mention how gorgeous the film is too? Branagh embraces a refreshing blend of scale and depth and color – especially color! – in every shot. The many sets have a really hand-made architectural quality to them that’s missing in today’s era where computer-generated imagery is used as a shortcut. Here, Branagh uses computer-generated elements in the background sparingly, and only then to enhance the lavish and ornate qualities of what was already there. Rich royal colors and a glittering baroque world liven every frame of the film, making every second worthy of being paused and framed on its own. And the costumes are just exquisite. There’s this pastiche sensibility that mixes and matches styles from different eras and cultures. In one wonderful scene, we see the princes and princesses from different kingdoms and they are each given clothes that evoke their respective nation’s identity (the Spanish princess’ dress has flamenco elements, the Japanese princess wears a kimono, the African princess has tribal elements etc) but done in a way where you never question their inclusion or existence in the world of the film. And Ella’s dress, which involves a creative use of lights and Swarovski crystals, is quite possibly the film’s greatest special effect to say nothing of the actual magic effects. The film is grand and vibrant, lush to look at. A timeless picture book brought to life in the best way possible, and with a strong script and assured direction, how could the film fail?
The truth is, that it still rests on the title character and her love interest to carry the film. And they do with ease. Newcomer Lily James has an extraordinary screen presence and she never place herself above the source material, instead playing out in earnest while cleverly making it her own. The Cinderella of 1950s animated feature didn’t have much to recommend her other than beauty and a sweet temperament, and with a character so deeply good, it would be easy to play her as flat as a doormat. Ella’s mother (Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell in a brief but memorable turn) tells her, on her deathbed, that she must be courageous and kind above all else. “Kindness has power and magic in it,” she tells her, and James certainly radiates kindness, but it’s Ella’s courage that makes her interesting. She is fearless and principled in the ways associated with the construct of femininity, rather than strong in the masculine definition (which seems to be a default in media these days, though not without merit) and that is a unique choice. For instance, when she allows her wicked step-family the run of her house as she moves into the attic, she never lets it play as meek concession so much as an empowered stance. “I’ll be very comfortable up here,” she says, “no one will bother me.”
The mantra of the film is,“have courage and be kind” – is there any better advice for any of us? Have compassion but be strong. Be fearless but never trample the weak. In most respects, Ella is a typical Disney princess, and we know exactly how the story ends but in this film version we know so much about her character that the position she’s in is given a new context that reads as very modern and forward-thinking. In some ways, Disney still has a lot to answer for when it comes to their “princess movies.” Since 1937, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, little girls across the world have wanted nothing so much as to be beautiful, well-dressed and to nab a wealthy prince. It took until 1989’s The Little Mermaid for a Disney princess to show any independence or even personality. Two years later, Belle from Beauty & the Beast did more rescuing than being rescued, cementing a trend toward princesses with as much bite as beauty – a trend that hit a new high with Frozen, a movie that turns most of Disney’s established values inside out with a wink. While it works in Cinderella’s favor that Branagh and Weitz didn’t attempt the radical modernization that made Maleficent uneven despite being ambitious and interesting, his traditional approach risks a backward point of view when it comes to gender politics and the correlation of beautiful to good and ugly to bad. However, the filmmakers are nuanced enough to avoid such pratfalls by making the film ultimately about inner beauty above all else as well as its subtle re-engineering of the famous romance at the core of the film.
There’s definitely a sense of conventionalism here in Cinderella’s pursuit of Prince Charming (well, Prince Kit, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden in a role very similar to that of Robb Stark) however it’s the on screen chemistry and performances that really get you to buy into the cliché. James and Madden play Ella and Kit as adults, actual functional adults, who meet, learn a little about one another and want to spend more time together. Kit loves Ella’s audacity and honesty; she loves his liveliness and good humor. Sure, they still get engaged in a matter of days and after the confirmation of a slipper’s fit, but their happy ending is rooted in Ella’s bravery by showing her true self, nothing more than a dusty servant girl, and in Kit’s loving acceptance of her just as she is. And that goes both ways, as Kit is given a full backstory and story arc as Ella does. Much of the film is about Kit’s apprehension of his own future, for he still feels he’s still an apprentice at heart despite his position. It is this feeling of burgeoning adulthood and responsibility that becomes a big point of connection between Ella and Kit, all serving to make the romance feel earned and above all, real.
Branagh’s film makes the fairy tale of Cinderella feel fresh, modern, and most of all: real. It does this, not by re-inventing anything or opting for textural “realness,” but by finding the parts of what has made the story endure for so long, being endlessly retold by many people across many cultures throughout history and bringing that forward in a nuanced and exciting way.