A fairytale so deeply embedded in the collective unconscious that it has given its name to a whole category of stories, the Cinderella myth has been cinematically retold, reimagined, recreated and riffed upon countless times. In fact, recently it has felt like the only thing you can do with such a cornball story is reimagine it, to make it relevant to a modern audience, and to address its fundamentally regressive gender politics. But now, tumbling sparkly-eyed into this world of irony, reappropriation and po-mo deconstruction, comes Kenneth Branagh‘s “Cinderella” a straight-up retelling of the tale for Disney. With no sheen of reflexivity, and no in-jokey admission of its hokiness to hide behind, can this non-ironic un-re-invention possibly work? Actually, yes it can, and does surprisingly well, by approaching the story with a sincerity and sweetness that defy cynicism, and by casting Cate Blanchett.
Fairytales are Disney’s bread and butter, and “Cinderella” feels like their sine qua non, but the animated version from 1950, whose success consolidated the studio’s position as the family film factory we all know and are required by law to love, feels now like one of their lesser entries, especially compared to touchpoints like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” and “Beauty and the Beast.” So while it might have seemed like a pointless endeavor, (though obviou$ly the point is $elf-evident) in fact, there was room for improvement in issuing a definitive take on the story. And that’s what Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have delivered here, hitting all the beats of a narrative that pretty much comes pre-installed in babies of all cultures, but also finding room in between to let the story luxuriate, and to let a delightful cast add personality to the archetypes they embody.
Lily James (“Downton Abbey“) is a lovely Ella who manages to steer away from saccharine, even when required to do such sickly things as sing to friendly mice. Richard Madden (“Game of Thrones“) makes a charming Prince Charming with his blue eyes and gentle demeanor, and the scenes between him and his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) are surprisingly touching. Helena Bonham Carter has just one extended sequence as a dizzy twinkly Fairy Godmother, but also narrates the story in a pleasant, musical voice. Stellan Skarsgård gets to have a little fun as the scheming Grand Duke who requires the Prince to marry for politics, not love. And though she’s only in the very start, and doesn’t have a name aside from “Ella’s Mother,” Hayley Atwell impresses too, even when she has to rattle on about “magic” and the “power of kindness” and deliver ridiculous lines like “I believe in everything!”
But as so often with Disney films, this one is owned by its villain. Cate Blanchett, jaw-dropping in an Easter Parade’s worth of amazing costumes (that 2016 Oscar should just be wrapped up and mailed to Sandy Powell now), is the ace up the film’s fitted satin sleeve. Striking catlike poses and oozing poison when required, she is also given a little humanity, including a surprisingly dorky, vulgar laugh that suggests just how studied and artificial her elegance is. One scene in which she tells her life story like she’s the heroine of a “once upon a time” tale, does in two minutes what “Maleficent” couldn’t do in two hours: it helps us understand her character’s brokenness without declawing her one bit.
Branagh’s solid style, aided by DP Haris Zambarloukos‘ steady camerawork, lets Dante Ferretti‘s baroque, confectionary production design really sing out, accompanied by Patrick Doyle‘s swoony romantic score. It also allows moments that would in any other film feel wildly overdone, to work, like when Cinderella, undergoing her magical dress makeover, seems to twirl around in a froth of glittery magic for about half an hour. But it can’t compensate for everything: the CG is occasionally ropey, and those parts of the story that were always silly remain silly. Plus, some of the tweaks to the traditional tale, like having Ella meet but not recognize the prince, introduce credibility issues of their own: she finally works it out only after going to the Ball and dancing a whole dance with him while everyone else looks on, which doesn’t so much suggest “blinded by love,” as “tragically slow on the uptake.”
But intelligence is not a quality ever required of Cinderella, as the film’s mantra, which is mentioned roughly every three minutes makes clear. “Have courage and be kind” she repeatedly reminds herself, but the courage mentioned is rarely evidenced, and in addition to “having” and “being,” it’d be nice to see Cinders “doing.” In fact the same passivity issues face “Cinderella” as they do all of the story’s many derivatives, including a certain BDSM, Rated-18 soon-to-be-blockbuster, that will reportedly have attached to it the trailer for, you guessed it, “Cinderella.” Seeing them so close together it’s impossible not to draw parallels as pure, sweet-natured, largely passive females are “rescued” from ordinariness by a handsome prince/sadomasochistic billionaire.
But “Cinderella” does not try to be transgressive, or even progressive, and unashamedly sells itself as the old-fashioned wish-fulfillment little-girl fantasy that ‘Fifty Shades‘ tries to whip its way out of. A more honest film in that regard, it’s also more romantic, and just a whole hell of a lot better. It’s so good in fact, that it will no doubt extend this myth’s influence even further, so it can inform even more female rescue fantasies, and ensure that a whole new generation of young girls, like so many generations before them, grow up wanting to be princesses. Fingers crossed this time, though, that just a few of them grow up wanting to be Cate Blanchett instead. [B+]