In an era of remakes and mashups and anti-heroes, it was hard to understand why Disney would go forward with a high-budget version of Cinderella that was so traditional in its style and narrative. Although I feared that I would be bored by Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic fairytale, the treatment of the story is refreshing and lovely, if sometimes also too breathlessly earnest.
I’m guessing you already know the plot of this movie. A kind and gentle girl, Ella (Lily James), beloved to her father (Ben Chaplin), is treated badly her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) when her father passes away suddenly, leaving her basically orphaned. One day, Ella meets a young gentleman, Kit (Richard Madden) in the forest, and they become smitten with each other. Ella doesn’t know that Kit is actually a prince. Kit doesn’t know that Ella is a servant girl. In order to find her again, Kit asks his father, the king (Derek Jacobi) to open the upcoming ball (where he’s suppose to find a wife) to all the women in the kingdom. Ella wants to go, her stepmother and sisters ruin her dress, bippity boppity boo (thanks to Helena Bonham Carter), you know the rest. This is definitely the Disney version of the story; no one has their eyes pecked out.
Branagh’s version of Cinderella certainly isn’t groundbreaking, but it is really beautiful. The characters in Chris Weitz’s screenplay are at times too idealistic, but they can also be quite charming. Rather than emphasizing Ella’s goodness in some vague way related to obedience, the narrative instead extols the virtue of courage and kindness. These qualities are also carried over into other characters, particularly Kit, giving some more meat to what is otherwise a simple story of love at first sight. Not only does the story focus on Ella’s emotional endurance, Kit’s side of story revolves around his relationship to his dying father and his need to become his “own man.” While these themes are sometimes cheesy, they give some practical lessons to anchor the sparkly moments. Cinderella is at its heart a story about grief, and this film captures that.
The screenplay also has some playful touches that enhance the story’s charm. The use of the animals was particularly wonderful. The mice took me back to the Disney animated version, Gus Gus and all. I loved that the mice seem to talk, but it’s just barely there. It implies that it could be real, or their voices could be in Ella’s imagination. Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother is really fun and the transformation of the pumpkin and the animals into Ella’s entourage for the ball was almost as much fun to watch as when they turned back at midnight. It was by far my favorite part of the movie.
Visually, Cinderella is beautiful in a way that is sometimes too much. The style makes sense for the story, but at times there is so much going on between the sets, the costumes, the props, etc. that it can feel like overkill. Particularly in the scenes around the ball, so much shimmery detail at once distracted from the acting.
The performances, much like the cinematography and effects, are sometimes charming and sometimes too breathy. Lily James and Richard Madden have great chemistry together, but in the ball scene they started to veer from romantic toward ridiculous. As the wicked stepmother, Cate Blanchett teeters convincingly on the edge of cruelty, portraying her character as acting sometimes from pain rather than sheer meanness. The ensemble cast is probably most fun in the minor characters, such as the painter doing Kit’s portrait, played by Rob Brydon, and the captain who serves as Kit’s hunting buddy, played by Nonso Anozie.
In all, Cinderella surprised me with its loveliness. I was won over by the story’s moral and the chemistry of the cast, even if I did roll my eyes at the corniness pretty often. 4/5 stars
Cinderella was written by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh. It runs 105 minutes and is rated PG.
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