If eyebrows were raised when Kenneth Branagh hammered out Thor, eyes rolled when he donned Cinderella’s directorial glass slipper. But ever the populist showman, and with a talent for breathing new life into classics (usually Shakespeare, here Walt Disney) Branagh turns what could have been a filmic pumpkin into a resplendent cinematic vehicle. Whilst not as radical a reinvention of its source as Frozen, this smartly reconceived fairy tale delivers similarly old-fashioned fun with a modern twist and, appropriately, plenty of magic.
Merchant’s daughter Ella (Lily James) has an idyllic childhood, full of affection from her loving parents (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell.) With the sudden death of her mother and her father’s remarriage to Lady Tremaine, (Cate Blanchett) Ella’s world is turned upside down. When her father perishes on a trip abroad, Ella is forced to become her stepfamily’s servant. Struggling to maintain her cheery disposition, a chance encounter with Kit, (Richard Madden) unbeknown to her prince of the realm, may lead to a change in her fortunes.
In spite of the unfounded pre-release criticism, Branagh’s Cinderella is not an idle princess fantasy. While the tale ends as it always does, with (SPOILER) a marriage to a handsome prince, it is not the title, gown or man that constitute the “happily ever after.” Rather it is being accepted for who you are that brings true happiness. Both the Prince and Cinderella struggle beneath the weight of others’ expectations. Their recognition of one another as kindred spirits, with whom they need only be themselves, is an admirable romantic message for all ages.
In fact, Chris Weitz’s script is full of healthy common sense in defiance of fairy tale norms. In a neat twist, the ugly stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) are not physically repulsive; it is their cruel and ignorant personalities that make them hideous. Meanwhile it is Ella’s inherent decency that ensures her carriage awaits; the Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, because of course) only casts her spell to reciprocate the compassion Ella shows her. The film’s repeated mantra, have courage, be kind and magical things can happen, is a welcome moral at a time when kindness often seems in short supply.
Grounding the story in emotion also proves inspired. The shattering of Ella’s halcyon childhood is surprisingly affecting, and even the villainess is governed by human sentiment. Cate Blanchett has a ball as the wicked stepmother, revelling in her glamorous malevolence. But she invests Tremaine with pain and subtlety; her antagonism toward Ella surfaces upon witnessing Chaplin’s continued grief for his late wife. Wounded pride, jealousy and determination to better her daughters’ social standing drive Tremaine, making her, like the best villains, a figure to be pitied as well as despised.
Blanchett aside, Stellan Skarsgard is great value as the devious archduke, whilst shrewd use of British comic performers in minor parts adds to the merriment. In the lead roles Madden may be called Kit, but he is certainly Charming as the Prince, and Lily James’ sparkly screen presence will hopefully be the first of many star turns.
Beautifully designed by Dante Ferretti, sumptuously shot by Haris Zambarloukos and with stunning costumes from Sandy Powell, the film combines the visual delights of the Mouse House tradition with well-pitched action and comedy. Though some gags are overplayed, Branagh bucks the trend in making a lavish blockbuster that isn’t afraid to be fun. With commendable life lessons, emotional core and old-school movie magic, Cinderella is a treat for the young and young hearted alike.
Cinderella is available on Disney Blu-Ray & DVD now