Is there still a place in our fractured fairy-tale world for the real thing?
Will young girls at least as familiar with the darker shades of Tim Burton’s Wonderland, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White as with the animated originals embrace a retelling that fleshes out and expands on a classic fairy tale without subverting or deconstructing a single dot or stroke?
Will the children of the Hobbit generation accept a live-action big-screen fairy tale without tacked-on epic battles and computer-generated army hordes, climaxing in nothing more violent than a tightly gripped arm and some fraught words? Is it acceptable for Cinderella to live in a world of color and beauty with nothing more grotesque than a pair of garish dresses, and only commune with ordinary animals, mostly mice and birds?
Can the protagonists of a major Hollywood family film still hope to be born into happy families and enjoy close relationships with loving parents — relationships unshadowed by misunderstanding and oppressive parental expectations, if not by tragedy and misfortune?
Is it conceivable that a heroine might meet a young man who is neither a scoundrel, misfit, buffoon nor uncouth loner: a young man whose sensitivity, courtesy and poise matches her own? Can we gain some insight into the psychology and motivations of an iconic villainess without transmogrifying her into a misunderstood heroine?
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is such a gallant anachronism, such a grandly unreconstructed throwback, that it offers, without ever raising its voice, a ringing cross-examination of our whole era of dark, gritty fairy-tale revisionism. These stories have been around for centuries, the film seems to say. Are you sure they will be improved by making the heroines oppressed by society or their parents, making the male love interests the moral or cultural inferiors of the heroines, adding battle scenes and so forth?
I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t mind seeing some revisionism in Cinderella’s story. I would like the heroine to be a more active agent in her own story. The film, though, brushes this aside: Never mind what you would do with it; this is the story. Isn’t this a good story, worth telling just as it is?
And you know what? It is. As told by Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz (About a Boy), the tale of a much-abused “cinder girl” and a high-minded prince who fall in love at the ball is as magical and romantic as you remember it being the first time you saw the Disney cartoon.
In fact, this telling is considerably better than the Disney cartoon, which, classic though it is, has notable flaws. Until now I would have said that the definitive screen Cinderella was the 1965 Rodgers and Hammerstein TV musical starring Lesley Ann Warren, but Branagh’s film surpasses it.
The heroine of the Disney cartoon had very little personality — less than Snow White or Sleeping Beauty — and Prince Charming had none at all. In this telling, both Ella (Downton Abbey’s Lily James) and the Prince (Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden) are substantial, thoughtful characters, and it is easy to imagine each falling in love with the other.
The Disney cartoon opens, after a brief summary introduction, with orphaned Cinderella already a servant to her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. This version opens with the beatitude of Ella’s family of origin, with Hayley Atwell (Marvel’s Peggy Carter) and Ben Chaplin (The New World) as her doting parents.
Early scenes linger on this idyllic happy household, the foundation for the gracious, buoyant person Ella becomes. Even after losing her mother, Ella’s bond with her father is the light of their lives, and she is joyous for him when, years later, he thinks to remarry.
Gracefully eliding the problem of Ella’s father not recognizing how his new wife — played with just a touch of tragedy by a grandly haughty Cate Blanchett — torments his daughter, the new film has Ella’s father die while traveling on business right after the wedding. The scene in which Ella bids her father farewell for the last time borrows from Beauty and the Beast: While Ella’s vain, stupid stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) beg their stepfather for luxuries and trinkets, Ella’s sentimental request is touching in its filial devotion.
Branagh doesn’t paper over Ella’s heartbreak at losing her mother as a girl and her father as a young lady. These tragedies put into perspective the indignities she endures from her cruel stepfamily; she’s suffered worse.
Branagh has said he wanted to make Cinderella a movie in which “kindness was a superpower,” and, indeed, Ella’s goodness and inner strength allow her to accept her humiliations with equanimity, not because she’s weak, but because questions of status and privilege mean little to her. “Kindness and bravery,” the virtues commended to Ella by her dying mother, make for a less fashionable theme than self-esteem and following one’s dreams, but as Stephanie Zacherek notes in her Village Voice review, it’s a theme directed outward, toward the wider world, not inward toward oneself.
Crucially, this Cinderella includes a key device that Disney included in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but omitted in Cinderella amid all the talking-animal slapstick: a chance early meeting between the heroine and the prince. This Meet Cute — which Branagh films as a sort of equestrian dance, with both on horseback cantering in circles about each other — allows each to make an impression on the other, establishing a connection that offers their big moment at the ball a bit of context.
The character of the Prince is among Cinderella’s most subversively non-subversive elements. Far from being ridiculous and preening (like the princes in Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog, among others), he’s humble. To Ella, who knows he’s from the palace but doesn’t know who he is, he describes himself self-deprecatingly as “an apprentice still learning his trade.”
He’s what Hans in Frozen could have been had it not been for a late editorial decision to turn him into a bad guy: an actual Prince Charming. Imagine that.
Helena Bonham Carter is an arch delight as Ella’s fairy godmother, bringing a blitheness a bit closer in spirit to her Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech than to a benevolent cousin of Bellatrix Lestrange. Blanchett makes the stepmother a ruthless but long-suffering woman in the difficult position of living in the shadow of a sainted woman to whom her husband’s heart always belonged, and of whom their dazzling, virtuous daughter is a constant reminder.
Special-effects set pieces are limited to the two famous transformation scenes bookending the ball — restraint that only makes those two sequences more magical, not to mention entertaining. The most memorable effect, though, doesn’t rely on computers or whimsical sight gags; it’s James’ Ella making her big entrance at the ball, floating down the marble staircase in that sweeping blue gown.
There is one respect in which Cinderella falls short of the Disney cartoon: in the absence of even a token role for religion. The cartoon ended with Cinderella and Prince Charming on the stairs of a cathedral, running for the royal carriage with rice flying after a church wedding.
The new film includes, in addition to the implied wedding at the end, a) the second marriage of Ella’s father, b) three separate incidents of a major character being bereaved of a parent, and c) the coronation of the heir to the throne (an event that even Frozen depicted in a Scandinavian stave cathedral with a bishop presiding).
Yet in this Cinderella all six of these major life events take place with no hint of a church or a clergyman. The theme of faith, treated vaguely in the Disney cartoon, becomes even more diffuse here, with Ella and her mother each confiding to the other, “I believe in everything.”
That includes fairy godmothers, here imagined as surrogate guardian angels that everyone apparently has but which few ever see. No. A fairy godmother is a fairy whom your parents invited to witness your christening, like the three fairies in Sleeping Beauty (at least, it’s a christening in the fairy tale by Charles Perrault).
Yet the moral climax of Cinderella is not her triumph over her cruel stepfamily, nor her happy union with the Prince, but something more elevated and distinctively Christian, and straight out of the text of Perrault. When was the last time you saw a Hollywood family film, or any kind of Hollywood film, in which the very last words spoken from the protagonist to her enemies are words of forgiveness?
P.S. Cinderella is preceded by a Frozen-themed short, Frozen Fever, which, despite my ambivalence to Frozen, I fully expected to enjoy. (After all, animated shorts generally outshine the features they’re attached to.) I’m disappointed to report that this is a superfluous return to Arendelle, the main point of which seems to be to sell many plush toys of the tiny, living snowmen that appear by the handful whenever Elsa sneezes. (Yes, really.)
Caveat Spectator: Deaths of parents; depictions of cruelty and abusive treatment (no violence). Fine family viewing.