Cinderella **** (out of 5)
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Ben Chaplin, Haley Atwell, and Helena Bonham Carter
Written by: Chris Weitz (screenplay), based on the children’s tale Cinderella by various authors
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
We have all seen this film, in one way or another, at least a hundred times over. How I could possibly get excited for, and then decide to pay for, a retread is beyond logical comprehension. However, trailers for director Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Cinderella hinted at a serious side. For that matter, Branagh’s involvement alone was enough to take it seriously, and the film upholds my faith. The film is honest and quite earnest, sweet without being saccharine, and heartfelt without being corny. That, in and of itself, is a compliment to all involved. For all of the wallet fleecing they engage in, Disney seems to be aiming higher with their live-action re-imaginings. While they may not be necessary, it is at least refreshing to think that they want to make quality films whilst fleecing your wallet. Cinderella never felt like a fleecing; in actuality, it is one of, if not the, best film of the year thus far.
Lily James (Downton Abbey) stars as the titular character. She may not actually be a natural blonde, but make no mistake- she’s very much a natural Cinderella. We’re introduced to her as a little Ella, as her parents (Ben Chaplin & Hayley Atwell) raise her in a gorgeous country cottage. Her parents instill in her a great deal of kindness, and she exudes the type of grace and beauty one would expect from such tutelage. As fairy tales are wont to do, this all begins to go awry. She loses her mother (Atwell) to death as a child, leaving her father lonely for many years. When Ella is all grown up, her father makes the difficult choice to move on and marry, as he discovers a widow (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters (Sophie McShera & Holliday Grainger).
The new family comes together in the cottage, and there the problems begin. Ella’s stepmother is indeed cruel to her, but her motivations are different from we’re accustomed to. Sure, her daughters are spoiled brats that treat Ella like a servant and not a sister, but they have motivations as well. This is where the film takes off. By grounding the wicked stepmother and giving the “villain” true reasons for her actions, we don’t sympathize with her, but we understand. The stepmother and Ella are not inherently opposite people, but they have had inherently opposite experiences. The stepmother sees a great deal of herself in Ella, and naturally, is jealous of her youth, optimism, and beauty. Ella knows nothing but to “be kind and be courageous”. This sort of interplay may be what drew classically trained professionals in Branagh and Cate Blanchett to the project. The Shakespearean angle of this story, with dreams unrealized and the dynamic of the fractured family must have been just complex enough to interest them. It may help that Blanchett is nothing short of amazing in almost every film she’s in.
I want to be completely fair to what Branagh and crew have accomplished, for Cinderella is so accomplished that it belongs in the top tier of period dramas and romances like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre before it. Everything from the costumes, set design, and the brilliant score from Branagh regular Patrick Doyle are top-notch, and made this thirty-something male viewer feel comfortable and moved in a world normally reserved for the fairer gender. To that point, other reviews for this film have given the proverbial ‘finger wag’ to Disney for seemingly moving backwards in the urgent race for narrative gender equality. With Frozen, and apparently everything following, all women must be independent and never wont for a prince or male, if I’m to believe some of the goofy reviews for Cinderella. The prince in this film (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) not only is completely enchanted with Ella, but pursues her in such a way that he’s but a respectful buffoon in her presence. I’m not sure how that translates to Ella being subservient or desperate.
Lily James has created a Cinderella performance that allows for the fantastical and still grounds her confidence in a realistic fashion. There’s nothing wrong with the romance in this film, and shame on other critics for trying to dig something up that simply isn’t there. I applaud all involved for their efforts with Cinderella, and they should be quite proud. What seemed at first like a simple Disney cash grab is actually far more realized and mature than I, or anyone likely imagined it would be. This new version should be the new ‘standard’, if there needs to be one, for all ‘Cinderella stories’ that came before and will likely follow. Maybe I am up for more live action ‘re-imaginings’ from Disney.