Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Granger, Sophie McShera, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Derek Jacobi
Plot: An orphan girl (James) lives a life of servitude under her cruel stepmother (Blanchett), longing for freedom.
People can be harsh on poor Cinderella. One of the earlier Disneys and perhaps the most ridiculed by modern audiences, Cinderella tells the story of an orphan girl who finds all of life’s problems solved in the arms of a man. Feminists looking to tear up culture from the bottom up often turn to these early Disney princesses and hold the light to the feminine trademarks this early film tried to set in stone. She is an easy target, simpering, content to sit about singing rather than actively solving her problems and a bit useless as a heroine.
Poppycock, says Branagh, tasked with directing a live action remake of this cult Disney classic. Live action Disney are all the rave right now, yet another excuse to hold off on those pesky original ideas. It also marks a great chance to rewrite them for a modern audience. Feminists cackled with glee at Snow White being remade as a sword-wielding soldier and Sleeping Beauty’s villain character was filled with impressive back story. Surely Cinderella would go down the same road and try to spruce up this age-old tale about true love. But Branagh does something even more remarkable. He stubbornly recreates Cinderella almost beat for beat, lovingly recreating this story but with real actors rather than animation. It’s a risky move and has become the kind of film feminist critics will trash without even watching. But what Branagh is doing is replaying this story to us and telling us that it is worth a second chance. His Cinderella is almost identical to the original film’s heroine (all Branagh does is add a worthwhile prologue, so we get to see her before the death of her parents), but somehow feels far more meaty than the feminists painted her as. Cinderella isn’t some weak girl, a natural victim of life, but an insanely brave soul who sees her whole life get battered to pieces, yet clings to the kindness and decency that her parents cherished. Remaining a good person through the toughest of times is much harder than it looks, putting any critic who calls Cinderella a weak character into a deserved negative light. There are a few dialogue beats that are truly fabulous, like her father tearfully begging her for permission to marry someone else after her mother’s death and her polite and loving answer. Lily James is wonderful as the lead heroine, keeping a stiff upper lip as her evil stepfamily essentially torture her. With real life actors, the horrors Cinderella goes through seem so much more real. In the original, we were watching animated characters go through a clichéd hard past; here, we see Lily James’ eyes go duller with every passing scene, as the life is sucked from her. There are moments you wish for Cinderella to give the sneering stepmother a much-needed slap to the face, but that is not what this film is about. If anything, our urges for a violent answer, only add to the message Branagh is trying to create. He has amazingly given us back this childhood story and assured audiences that we don’t need to change a thing.
It must be said it can be a joy watching this beloved classic unfold without the edgy rebranding of characters. It means actors don’t have to force an outside-the-box interpretation of anyone and can simply act. Cate Blanchett is, of course, divine as the villain of the piece, a horribly cruel woman. Blanchett plays the role louder than the original’s cold-hearted ice queen, but the villainy is still there. Branagh lets us peek under the psychology of the character; not enough to redeem her for her actions, but enough that Blanchett gets to do more than play a pantomime baddie. The prologue shows her begin to slip a grip on Cinderella’s helpless family. The original movie cleverly played with the audience, hinting that the stepmother would turn out to be less cruel than her horrible daughters. That is played with well here, as the answer to that question is firmly painted out, Blanchett adopting the stepsister’s insults to Cinderella as a family creed. Everyone else is perfectly charming, having fun starring in such a heart-felt production. Knowing that the story speaks for itself, they simply work to make it fun, delivering small gags and knowing winks. The stepsisters get the broadest humour, but Helena Bonham Carter is a close second as an over-enthusiastic Fairy Godmother. The fun that the cast have keep the movie ticking over satisfyingly well. Branagh feels more enabled rather than constrained by sticking to what came before, able to focus on recreating classic scenes rather than reworking them. Cinderella’s interactions with her Fairy Godmother are magical, as she is given a dress, glass slippers and a pumpkin carriage. The ballroom scene is appropriately breath-taking, somehow escaping cheese-ball romanticism. Even the pet mice are brought back, heavily animated but still lovably charismatic. The only real addition to the story is an added subplot when it comes to Stellan Skarsgard’s scheming Grand Duke, and that is for the best.
Alas, while Cinderella is definitely a well-made film, sticking so closely to the source material does hold up a brand new problem. Yes, the lack of progressive elements are canonically beneficial, but this is also a film that does little entertainment wise. For a while, it is nice seeing the live action version. And there are great scenes, as highlighted above, where Branagh’s vision is worthwhile. But we have seen this story before. Probably many a time. The second the film starts to slow down, you are hit by a sense of boredom. We know where the casual flirting between Cinderella and Prince Charming is going. Spending time with Cinderella slaving away is important, but also treading water, until the good scenes kick in. It begs the question if we really need this film or if it simply a nice experiment? The end result is a film you respect and a film with some incredibly strong moments, but a rather vapid experience overall.
Final Verdict: Cinderella definitely escapes the title of dull heroine, but this is a story repeated too often. Good, but non-essential.