So this is love.
Have courage, and be kind.
For anyone who still believes in magic at the movies — that old time swing, the enchanting crimson curtains opening up to reveal her mysteries — Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is for you. Bathed in the glow of old Hollywood, Disney’s latest live-action optical feast hits all the right chords in a symphony of childhood nostalgia. And therein lies the most apt axiom before indulging: this is the tale you remember well, populated by its simple three act narrative, one-dimensional characters (for the most part – we’ll get to that), and unbelievable fairytale love. Though Chris Weitz’s screenplay takes a few liberties with 1950’s animated Cinderella, it is to the film’s complete advantage.
A tale as old as t— okay, that’s the other one, but still. Trying again: once upon a time, in a fairytale kingdom, Ella (Lily James) lived in her quaint, family cottage with her stunning mother (Hayley Atwell) and unfussy father (Ben Chaplin), both of whom indulge the child’s fantasies and leave her with bedtime stories and enchanting sing a-longs until tragedy strikes. After promising her mother (on her deathbed, natch) she will always “have courage and be kind,” Ella grows into a beautiful woman, determined to please her father. After said father marries the widowed Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and brings the woman’s step-daughters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera) to live in the cottage, he is stuck by the famed Mouse Curse (death by Disney), and Ella is left be a servant in her own home. Resigned to her fate, Ella toils away courageously, always being kind to her stepfamily – who, in turn, nickname her “Cinderella.” When a Royal Ball is announced at the palace, it takes Ella’s fairy godmother to level the playing field, giving Cinderella a chance at true love, happiness, and magic.
James approaches Cinderella as a young woman who has learned to wear her ingénue nature as a mask, but forcefully lets her opinion known when confronted. Her cleverness is her true power, often placing people off-guard with her blunt kindness and honesty. She is selfless, gentle, and compellingly beautiful, but it should be noted that this version of Cinderella is not just a maiden sitting around waiting to be rescued. Ella demands to be loved for who she is, warts and all – as few as those are. She is continually willing to sacrifice her own happiness for others, truly becoming the master of her own story.
It’s not hard to believe in love at first sight when confronted with James’s presence; in addition, Richard Madden’s Prince Kit has more to do in this story, as his character’s need for love stems from a deep connection with his parents. Once lost to him, he feels he must marry – not for the strength of his kingdom, but for the memory of his parents’ love. He presents Kit as a charismatic young man, full of wide-eyed optimism matched only by James.
The role of Lady Tremaine, having been famously voiced by the great Eleanor Audley and portrayed by Angelica Huston (sort of), now gets the superb Cate Blanchett treatment. She’s a woman so consumed by grief she becomes obsessed with her own importance, selfishly blaming Cinderella for her current situation. Blanchett’s wicked stepmother is much more of a character than the empty plot device known as the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard, mostly wasted); it’s true, every fairytale needs its villains, and each fills their role predictably. The stepsisters are merely copies of the animation’s, though McShera and Grainger seem to have fun with their cinematic torment of Ella. The only real head-scratcher in casting seems to be Helena Bonham Carter as Ella’s Fairy Godmother – basically, a cameo for his ex-girlfriend. It’s not exactly that she is unwelcome in the film (she absolutely fits in among the outrageous cast of characters); however, her younger, slightly frantic nature is much less Bibbity-Bobbity than “weird girl you met at a rave.”
The real crown jewel of the film is the Dante Ferretti production design, filling each frame with colorful elements that harken back to theatrical musicals like My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Singing in the Rain and classic animated Disney. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography is its own character, with its fluid movement dancing through every set like an unbiased and curious observer. Branagh frames the characters wide open to encompass their world’s authentic presentation: nothing is unimportant; every environment meticulously detailed. The costume design by Sandy Powell will launch a million little girls to the Disney store, cash in hand to have that dress – and Powell should consider dusting her shelf for an Oscar in 2016, early as this prediction may be.
But, just as Ella is not just a girl, Powell is not just a dress – taking great care to fit even the most peripheral of characters in the appropriate garb. The richly multihued film serves to honor the 1950 film in a way that is both admirable and confident. Branagh simply knows not to mess with what already works about this timeless tale. Patrick Doyle’s score is a trip down memory lane, marrying classic themes while presenting a few new notes for the thrilling further exploration of the world. Cinderella still sings, though not as often, and she gets her waltz with her Prince to La Valse de L’Amour – though, oddly, I detected a bit of Once Upon a Dream, a Sleeping Beauty staple. Curious.
In this age of pessimism in cinema (read: Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Snyder’s Man of Steel, Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Disney opts for a sweeter, glass half-full approach with Cinderella. Possibly learning from the mistakes displayed in the well-intentioned but ultimately mishandled Maleficent, Weitz does not vary much from the animated mothership, albeit limiting the roles of housecat Lucifer and loyal mice (thankfully). The script hits all the beats: patented Disney parental death count (four), unbelievably virtuous damsels in distress, an altruistic Prince who believes his people to be his responsibility but governs with his heart thrust forward, one note villains with impeccably groomed hair well-timed evil cackles. By choosing to not “improve” upon a timeless classic, Cinderella fits right in among the Once Upon a Time troupe, to results that fill the heart with childhood glee.
A magical romp in ones own childhood dreams for anyone wishing to take a trip back in time. After all, a dream is a wish your heart makes.