Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger. (From IMDb)
Review: Cinderella is one of the most popular fairytales from the European canon. There are multiple retellings from the gruesome to the wholesome. And the story has been adapted into musicals, movies, and radio dramas. But they are all essentially the same, a non-noble girl ends up marrying a dashing prince. One of the reasons this tale has such staying power is the element of hope woven into the narrative. Cinderella hopes for a better life but never expects to find it in the glittering halls of a castle. Good triumphs over evil, the stepmother and stepsister get their comeuppance for treating Cinderella so abhorrently. This adaption adds some depth to the classic fairytale without losing its charm. It is a glittering affair packed with ornate chandeliers, candelabras, gorgeous ball gowns, and a slightly off kilter fairy godmother. Kenneth Branagh manages to create a magical narrative that pulls the audience in and keeps you entranced until the end. Branagh does a much better job with Cinderella than he did with Thor.
With a screenplay by Chris Weitz, Cinderella empowers its main character by interweaving an effective morality tale about kindness and being yourself. On her death bed, Ella’s mother encourages her to always be courageous and kind, a mantra repeated throughout the film. The screenplay emphasizes that Ella is not a princess, she is simply a country girl who treats everyone around her with courtesy and respect. Even when they do not deserve such treatment. She still has her sassy moments, like when the stepsisters assume she cannot speak French and she admonishes the Prince for following tradition because that is the way things are done. Lilly James is a delightful Cinderella and she is a delightful presence on screen. I love her character in Downton Abbey and she is just as good on the big screen. And she more than holds her own against the force of nature that is Cate Blanchett. Branagh did a fantastic job of making sure Blanchett did not upstage James, especially since she easily could.
Blanchett is obviously delighted to play the slightly over-the-top stepmother. Unlike other “evil” villains in fairytales, Blanchett’s lady Tremaine is not technically evil. She is merely a widow without an income with two daughters to support. So when an advantageous opportunity presents itself, she jumps on it and uses the situation to further her advantage. Lady Tremaine is not wicked, she is just an opportunistic manipulator. In this tale, Tremaine never feels quite at home in Cinderella’s ancestral home, so when her husband dies, she makes Cinderella the outsider. While this is not a nice move on her part, it is an understandable move. Also, Blanchett has some of the most elaborate costumes in the film. In some scenes, her outfits nearly upstage her acting. Sandy Powell, the costume designer, tries to evoke a 1940s femme fatal feel with the Blanchett’s costumes. The result is a lot of elaborate soignée updos, a leopardskin dressing gown, and a slightly feral edge. Blanchett definitely evokes a Joan Crawford vibe as she sashays across the screen.
The stepsisters are a wonderful source of comic relief, played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera. They dress like ornate cupcakes and everything about them is slightly off. Their unquenchable materialism is a strong contrast to the earthiness of Cinderella. The narrative makes a strong comparison between flightiness and compassion. Also, Sophie McShera plays kitchen maid Daisy in Downton Abbey and she seems to reveal in playing the over-the-top Drisella. Both Grainger and McShera enjoy playing the crazy unaccomplished stepsisters. And Robb Stark plays Prince Charming and he finally gets a happy ending. Richard Madden was an excellent choice to play the Prince. He has piercing blue eyes and a suave demeanor. It also helps that he looks fantastic in Regency period clothing. On a more important not, the Prince is the perfect foil for Cinderella and the screenplay adds some depth to his character by exploring his relationship with the King. Of course none of the characters are sufficiently developed, but the Prince was given enough depth to avoid becoming a caricature.
Branagh also manages to turn the dance at the ball into an actually romantic moment. James and Madden have good chemistry and the dance emphasizes and focuses the attraction. Though my favorite scene is the one between Cinderella and the fairy godmother. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful as the slightly ditzy fairy godmother and the scene where the pumpkin turns into a carriage is perfect. My one complaint is the digital mice. While the relationship between Cinderella and the mice worked in the animated film, in this version it just seems ridiculous and out-of-place. Otherwise, this a charming fairy tale film. It is not a philosophical or moral tale. Instead, it is exactly what it says it is: a fantastical fairy tale. I enjoyed every moment.