In the midst of the post-Enchanted world, Disney has taken a gamble in funding Cinderella, which is, as you could have guessed, based on the classic fairy tale published in 1634. Adapted by Walt Disney in 1950, Cinderella has lived on, boosted by Disney’s hand into a household story with a message of inner beauty and acceptance. So why is remaking the animated classic into a live action picture a gamble for the studio? Well, for starters, this is a step-by-step remake, any possible hint of creativity nonexistent. Is that a bad thing? In a way, yes. But the fears that could be had before walking into a screening of Cinderella will disappear within minutes as director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) sweeps us into his directorial grasp and allows us to behold an endless array of gorgeous set pieces and flashy costumes that will make even the most skeptical blush.
To explain the story of Branagh’s film would be to explain the story of the 1950 film, and to do that would be to explain the synopsis of the fairy tale. It’s all the same; no differences, no tricks. Ella is a beautiful young girl who is the subject of bad luck, losing her mother and eventually being introduced to Lady Tremaine, her new step-mother who has two girls of her own. The evil step-mother and the evil step-sisters take advantage of the poor girl, forcing her to slave away and do their chores and every kind of housekeeping job needed. Then one day Ella meets a prince and everything changes. His heart is stirred up, he falls for her after merely seeing her, and a beautiful story of true love unfolds that just happens to include a ball, splendid and ravishing, which is staged as an attempt to bring these two smitten characters together again.
As Ella, Lily James (Lady Rose in Downton Abbey and currently set to star in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) brings enough charisma and personality to become a convincing Cinderella, but that’s all she ever is. Screenwriter Chris Weitz never deviates much from the original, so that doesn’t allow James to come into her own form as an actress, but as the classic character of Cinderella, she’s good enough, and she looks absolutely stunning in that blue dress. But not even the dazzling dress can let her measure up to Cate Blanchett, who seems so wickedly delighted to be in the role of the wicked step-mother, never failing to take advantage of director Branagh’s long takes and Weitz’s script that allows her to exhibit emotion that stems from a shocking amount of characterization and backstory.
As a Game of Thrones fan, it was nice to see Richard Madden appear as Prince Charming (“Kit” as he’s called), and he does a great job in the film, especially when he’s pleading with his father (the always entertaining Stellan Skarsgård). Sophie McShera (also from Downton Abbey) and Holliday Grainger (from The Borgias) are fine as being the evil step-sisters, but it all comes back to the script not allowing the characters to do much than be just “fine.” In one memorable scene, Helena Bonham Carter shows up and gives us her Bonham-isms as I call them, which amount to Helena Bonham Carter being Helena Bonham Carter. She talks fast, she moves her hands, and she has whacky hair. But in this film, substitute the whacky hair with a gorgeous white dress and a wand. Despite being a fairy (she plays Cinderella’s Fairy God Mother, in case you didn’t know), she actually looks quite normal in this movie. I’m willing to bet that it’s because Tim Burton didn’t take a step on set.
No, Kenneth Branagh, who is usually a hit and miss director, has made an achievement with Cinderella. As a director, he has a taken what could have been a check-your-watch-every-minute bore-fest and has instead given us a reimagining with enough talent and enough passion to introduce a new generation to this timeless story. The set pieces are gorgeous, the costume design is impeccable, the color pallet is visually sumptuous, and merely thinking about the scene at the ball is making me want to go back and see it again. It’s an immaculately staged scene with alluring camerawork and stress-relieving colors. Some will argue that the film isn’t good because it does nothing new with the material. But if we’ve learned anything from movies like Snow White and the Huntsman or Maleficent, it’s that a little duplicity, if met with talent, may not be a bad idea after all.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
Written by Chris Weitz
Directed by Kenneth Branagh