Review: Cinderella (2015)

For a traditional take on a familiar tale, Disney’s new live-action Cinderella feels like a breath of fresh air. In this, our ironic postmodern age of endless remakes and reboots, revision and reinvisioning, someone telling a well-known tale faithfully, sincerely, and artfully seems like an act of unconventional daring.

Clearly, Kenneth Branagh was the right director to helm this project. The veteran of numerous Shakespeare adaptations (both behind and in front of the camera) and, more recently, a successful superhero launch (Thor), Branagh is long familiar with how to revitalize a set story. He knows that, as with a production of Shakespeare, the power in telling a fairy tale doesn’t derive from variation alone: repetition also matters. If anything, fairy tales are assemblages of event and character types, and the reason they are so timeless is because all that really matters is getting the pattern of characters and events right. Having Cinderella continue on in suffering at the end could be interesting, but it wouldn’t be the Cinderella story and so it wouldn’t work as a fairy tale. What’s more, Branagh and his screenwriter Chris Weitz also understand that modifying the plot or making the villains into misunderstood antiheroes (à la Disney’s revisionary take on Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent) isn’t the only way to bring something new to the telling.

Like the best Disney films, animated or otherwise, Cinderella is a work of superb craftsmanship. The quality of the entire cast’s acting, the beauty of Dante Ferretti’s production design, the gorgeous textures and heightened colours of Sandy Powell’s costumes all bring life to the old tale. Children will be caught up with the story, but, if my wife is any indication, fashion-conscious adults will swoon for Cate Blanchett’s costumes. Like Branagh’s Hamlet, the setting is vaguely nineteenth century, the men’s tight pants and shiny boots evoking an Old Continental yesteryear before the full impact of the Industrial Revolution. Blanchett, however, sports a forties vixen vibe, the shapes and shoulders of her dresses setting off her magnificent cheekbones.

All this makes Cinderella standout from most blockbusters today, Disney or otherwise, for in Cinderella the spectacle is the extravagantly designed mise-en-scène, not violent action and mass destruction. I was happy to see that a horse ride through the woods and the escape of the magic pumpkin carriage (which races along the edge of a cliff and loses its magic in an exuberant crash) were the extent of the action-oriented additions. Haris Zambarloukos’s sweeping, roaming camera shows off cities and countrysides, ballrooms and gardens, boots and dresses. In this way, the film reminded me of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which is another recent work in this alternative, old-school Hollywood mode of spectacle.

The acting and characterization are also excellent. Lily James (Lady Rose MacClare from Downton Abbey) gets Ella (hence, “cinder-Ella”) just right. She achieves the delicate balance of making this heroine strong, innocent, and likeable. Her conscious and courageous endurance of suffering is portrayed as an active patience, and hence is noble, heroic, and worthy of admiration (a concept that seems lost on some viewers who can’t think outside twenty-first-century binaries of agency and passivity). Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) pulls off not only the Prince’s charm but also sensitivity. Branagh and Weitz allow the Prince to experience his own conflict—albeit an age old one—the choice between love and duty. The two leads take on the old types with such fresh energy, and generate such chemistry between themselves, that I believed their love at first sight. Branagh stalwart Derek Jacobi adds depth to the father/king, and Helena Bonham Carter (sporting a bizarrely perfect set of teeth) sells the oddball charm of the Fairy Godmother. Such is the strength of the cast, that the wicked stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) and even the Prince’s right-hand man (Nonso Anozie) are memorable.

I should also point out that this isn’t simply a retread of the Disney animated version. I like that Cate Blanchett’s stepmother is humanized without being made sympathetic. With a handful of lines superbly delivered, Blanchett and Weitz suggest that her long lost innocence, which must have been not unlike Cinderella’s, feeds her present bitterness and fear-driven ruthlessness. With that, we can understand how one becomes a wicked stepmother without questioning the character, or reversing the roles. Evil is still evil, even though it may be understood just a bit. It’s an act of narrative enriching, not subversion—magnification not revision.

All things considered, this most recent Cinderella is actually better than the old animated film. I’m an ardent admirer of Golden Age Disney, but I don’t have strong feelings for the 1950 Cinderella, which I know many consider a classic. At this moment, I can’t recall any of the songs, and I can only visualize the Fairy Godmother waving her magic wand and Cinderella’s slipper.

Most people I encounter are describing this movie as “cute.” While I would agree to a point (“enchanting” is better), I dislike how the label allows for cautious approval, a certain affection while somehow distancing the film. Does “cute” betray a fear that the film is—horror of horrors—“regressive”? Is the film a little too traditional for many to embrace openingly in a culture of polarization and thought policing? Of course, no one would say it’s realistic, because realistic is coded as gritty and depressing today. I’d wager, though, that it’s as much the film’s hopeful admonition that courage and kindness will triumph over evil as its fairy godmother and magic pumpkin that bars it from the label of realism. On the other hand, Game of Thrones, which contains nothing less than dragons and ice zombies, is frequently described as more “realistic” fantasy, perhaps because of its ceaseless cynicism and quantity of sex and violence.

Lastly, I just want to say that as much as I applaud the film, not every Disney fairy tale classic needs the live-action treatment. But this one works. How do I say thanks without asking for more?

9 out of 10

Cinderella (2015, USA/UK)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh; screenplay by Chris Weitz; starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Nonso Anozie, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, and Stellan Skarsgård.