Cinderella (2015) / Fantasy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for mild thematic elements
Running Time: 112 min.
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell
Small role: Rob Brydon
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay: Chris Weitz
Review published March 13, 2015
With Disney counter-programming their own traditional catalog with takes that explore new ways of telling old-fashioned stories in Frozen, Maleficent, and Into the Woods, they try their hand at counter-counter-programming by going full bore right back into telling an age-old tale in a very traditional way. But they do it well, nonetheless.
Lily James (Broken, Wrath of the Titans) is perfectly cast as Ella, a former well cared for girl who ends up and orphan in the care of a not-very-nice stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Blanchett, The Battle of the Five Armies) and two egotistical and jealous stepsisters. She becomes a near shut-in servant to them, forced to do all of the dirty work of the house (her ashy, grimy appearance earns her the name "Cinder-Ella") while they do their best to try to land a rich husband. While out in the woods, she encounters a handsome man (Madden, "Game of Thrones") that forms an instant connection with, not knowing he is the prince of the land. Wanting to see her again, and pressured by his ailing father, the king (Jacobi, The King's Speech), to marry before he expires, the prince summons all of the women of the kingdom to attend the royal ball in which he will choose a suitor, and future queen. Being of the lowliest of low status, and forbidden to attend by stepmom, it's going to take quite the bit of magical assistance by a kindly fairy godmother (Carter, The Lone Ranger) to fulfill Ella's romantic quest for a better life.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Thor), Cinderella is merely an attempt to tell a familiar story in a very competent manner, no more, no less. He succeeds, and while the film doesn't contain very many surprises for anyone who knows the story well (especially Disney's animated version of 1950), for those young enough to the story that feels new to them, and for those who prefer their fairy tales less revisionist, this is about as respectful a modern-day film adaptation as one could reasonably expect. Branagh isn't trying to give the story edge or grit to subvert expectations; he's a respectful filmmaker who treats the material as if there's a reason that countless generations have passed down this story. He trusts in the potency of the original story to enthrall the young of every walk of life, and isn't going to try to muss up a slam-dunk by daring to deviate too much.
Although it isn't excessively extravagant, Cinderella does pick its spots where it comes to life visually quite well, especially during the fairy godmother scenes and subsequent events of the royal ball. Costumes are wonderfully designed by Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island) , with a special eye for color that truly pops out when it needs some contrast, while the production design of Dante Ferretti (Seventh Son, Sweeney Todd) bolsters the rest of the look with sumptuous appeal. It's hard to call any film with a $95 million budget as modest, but they make the most of it on the screen without losing the characters as a result.
A digression: the one thing that has always bothered me since I was a young lad was the problem of the glass slipper. In any telling I've heard, I've always hoped for an explanation as to why the glass slipper remains intact when every other item the fairy godmother bestows upon Cinderella reverts back to its original form at the last stroke of midnight. Further, it has also bothered me that at a ball in which many women are in attendance, and one in which all eyes are on the prince and his famous dance with the beautiful young woman no one has seen before, that the solution to finding her is to fit this slipper on the feet of every woman in the kingdom. The prince and his men already know what she looks like, so why the facade of putting a slipper on women they absolutely know are not the woman they're seeking? Do we really expect that the prince would marry the wicked stepmother if, by happenstance, her foot fit snugly into the ornate shoe? Unfortunately, it's not explained particularly well here, and it's further complicated by the fact that the prince and his men have already seen Ella in her commoner pre-ball garb, so there's no need for the facade.
Nevertheless, there are some other explanations that are offered that we don't always get, including how Cinderella got her name, how she ended up living with a stepfamily, and why the stepmother is so cruel to her. There's also the extra twist of a conspiracy at the heart of the search for the prince's bride to be that does add an extra element of suspense to the hunt. Glass slipper plot holes notwithstanding, the rest of the story is told quite well.
It's not really a stirring, emotionally resonant telling for adults, but perhaps that's because it's so traditional that we already know the story beats by heart. Some may find it a bit like listening to classical music -- beautiful, time-honored, and absolutely respectful to the original composition. For those who like classic stories told in classical ways, Branagh's Cinderella will be music to your ears.
©2015 Vince Leo