Disney’s new Cinderella, a live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1950 classic animated film—itself an adaptation of the perennial European folk tale—will pleasantly surprise moviegoers who might be wary of Disney remakes after the “reimagined” train wreck that was last year’s Maleficent. [See CWR’s review, "Recovering An Enchanted World” by Anne Hendershott] But fear not, for the extremely talented and eminently Shakespearean Kenneth Branagh is at the helm. As a result, Cinderella soars where Maleficent had its fairy wings clipped.
The most refreshing thing about this film is that, at several turns, it portrays a world in which the virtuous choice is the beautiful choice, and the reason for a character’s likeability is not her spectacular good looks, but ultimately her pure and virtuous heart, according to fairly traditional standards. The virtues and values espoused by the narrative are what many parents are going to be concerned about, and there is much to be praised in that regard.
This version of the tale opens with Ella’s idyllic childhood, depicting the beautiful life that her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin) lived with her. When her mother is suddenly stricken with a fatal illness, she tells a younger Ella: “Have courage, and always be kind.” The words are repeated, and delivered with gravity, as the distillation of every bit of wisdom her mother would have liked to share with her over many years. It is a maxim, an aphorism, and so it might only go so far, but as used in this story it shapes Ella into a heroine whose stubborn idealism carries her through the grief of her later unfortunate circumstances.
After her mother’s death, the story moves forward several years, with the older Ella portrayed by the disarming and radiant Lily James. We see the life Ella and her father lead, still filled with love and kindness, but with her mother’s absence keenly felt. Another aspect of Ella’s pure heart is revealed: she doesn’t want impressive gifts from her merchant father’s travels abroad; she just wants him back home. She loves the person, not the possessions. It’s simple message, yes, but a good one.
To assuage his loneliness, her father chooses to wed the ambitious and materialistic Lady Tremaine, played with balletic grace by Cate Blanchett as if the Lady Tremaine were a clever and insinuating serpent. (The main visual queue that Lady Tremaine is trouble is her wardrobe: she dresses like a classy 1950’s Studio System vamp, while everyone else dresses as if it’s the 1800s.) The little details are portrayed with an eye toward truth in all of these scenes. A lack of appreciation of Ella’s home’s simple country decor reveals Tremaine’s sense of entitlement, along with her avarice for wealth and fine things. The thoughtless slights of Ella’s stepsisters foreshadow their willingness to participate in greater cruelties later on, when Ella’s father has died and she has no one to protect her.
Ella and the Prince eventually meet while he’s on a hunt in the woods, and from that point the story expands beyond Ella’s home environs into the wider world of this nameless Kingdom. The portrayals of all the characters of the court, from the King (Derek Jacobi), to the Prince’s Captain (Nonso Anozie), and to a cunning Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård), are subtle enough that you’re convinced of their humanity, but brief enough to keep you focused on The Main Thing: the romance between “Cinderella” and the Prince. The film thus gains a new dimension, dealing with the obstacles preventing the union of two young people who’ve fallen in love. So, while the trials and travails faced by those beset by arranged marriages might not be quite current in our day and age, you truly do care about these two, and want them to get together, because of the authenticity of their milieu (though still fantastical!) and the humanity of their characters.
Branagh and writer Chris Weitz (who co-directed 2002’s delightful About a Boy) have done a wonderful job of crafting characters who satisfy the fairy tale requirements of Good and Evil, while being simultaneously recognizable to us psychologically-sensitive moderns as real people, with believable motivations—in particular the wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine. Another nice touch is that, while the milieu is clearly a fantastical central Europe, the cast is as multiracial as the United States, excluding no young viewers from the experience of imagining themselves as part of this world.
It’s always a pleasure to view a film that has a story well-done enough, as Cinderella has succeeded in doing, that you can enjoy—without regret—the impressive achievements in costume design, art direction, and production design, and not feel they were wasted on a mediocre story. When Helena Bonham-Carter shows up onscreen as the Fairy Godmother, you’re already invested, because Lily James and all the artists pulling the puppet strings behind the scenes have done their jobs. So, when the special effects start piling on during the pumpkin carriage sequence, the spectacle serves the plot and the characters. And the dance sequence at the ball is a stunning and kinetic achievement, a climax of character and plot and production—a set piece that accomplishes everything the animated film may have evoked in your imagination.
There are moments in this film that may well take your breath away, if you’re not too jaded. The story is heartwarming, but not sentimental; it earns whatever warmth it generates. So, finally, if films about two young, good-hearted, and, yes, very good-looking lovers trying to overcome the romantic obstacles life and step-family and monarchical statecraft have put in their way are what you’d like to spend money on, Cinderella will absolutely satisfy.
Related: “Kenneth Branagh’s Very Christian Cinderella” by Fr. Robert Barron
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