Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Stellan Skarsgård, Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin, Derek Jacobi
Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella walks the line between the fantasy of the Disney animated version and the realism of Ever After. Disney also produces this retelling; it’s charming, sumptuous, and extraordinarily well acted, even as it eschews taking any risks whatsoever.
There’s just enough sparkle here to make this a perfect family flick. Disney chose this as their spring break film; that was a smart marketing choice.
We all know the tale – although, for fun, you should dig around on the Internet for the much darker cultural versions. In one Eastern European telling, Cinderella kills her stepmother so her father can marry the housekeeper. The housekeeper and her six daughters are so much worse – worse than the murdered stepmother, worse than we could imagine. Let’s just say this Cinderella pays for her crime.
But enough tangents: in this classic version, lovely James plays the put-upon princess-to-be. She is radiant and bubbly, much like her character on Downton Abbey. Chaplin – an actor we almost forgot since Remains of the Day and The Truth about Cats and Dogs – is her doting father. Atwell (the Captain America flicks) portrays the doomed mother. Bonham Carter goes slightly wacky with large teeth and a dotty nature as the magical, fairy godmother.
The real coup here, though, is Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, the imperious and very wicked stepmother. She channels Faye Dunaway a’la Mommy Dearest. Branagh is all too willing to light her like Morticia Addams, with an extra bright strip of light across her shrewd, evil eyes. Blanchett is so good that she adds nuance and subtlety to a character rotten to the core.
It’s no wonder she’s so bitter. She’s been in financial ruin once, after her first husband and love of her life died. Her daughters – Grainger (Anna Kerenina) and McShera (Downton Abbey) – are rather stupid.
Cinderella also brings out the magic of special effects. The glass slippers shine. (“And you’ll find they’re very comfortable,” the fairy godmother brags.) A goose is transfigured into a coach driver. Lizards half-transform into footmen. Mice become beautiful white horses, and a pumpkin makes the most rococo of golden carriages.
Ravi Bansal does excellent art direction. His recent resume includes X-Men: Days of Future Past and Guardians of the Galaxy. The costumes are a brilliant, careful mix of several styles. Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator) is very successful at this current trend, much more so than others. She should be nominated again.
I admit I wanted a few larger twists and surprises – it’s not ever a deep story. Also, the nagging sexism of the original tale still lingers. I content myself with gentle humor and lavish production design, plus a few choice moments. There’s a graceful early scene with the Prince (Madden) and Cinderella. The Prince’s bonding with his dying father (the indomitable Jacobi) is surprisingly touching. James glows, and Blanchett steals her every scene.
Branagh’s Cinderella doesn’t reinvent anything. It instead proves that that the old magic is still fairly enchanting.