There are two sorts of people in the world: Disney fanatics and those who greet old-school fairy tales with the same level of enthusiasm they reserve for colonoscopy preparation. That director Kenneth Branagh manages to enchant both with his new live-action Cinderella is a feat on par with turning a pumpkin into a coach or keeping little girls from squealing during the new Frozen short that precedes the movie. The story of the abused but honest poor girl who wins the heart of a prince couldn’t have landed in better hands.
Branagh has always had an eye for spectacle — witness the tracking shot of the Agincourt battlefield in Henry V or any part of his lavish full-length Hamlet — and he makes the most of the fairy tale’s biggest moments, even if at times Cinderella feels a bit long in contrast to the 1950 animated version’s brisk 74-minute running time. The film gets off to a bit of a slow start as we meet a pre-cindery Ella, whose idyllic childhood is cut short when her mother dies. Before she does, though, she reminds her daughter to always “have courage and be kind.” This advice proves useful, though honestly things might have worked out better in the short term if Ella (Lily James of Downton Abbey) were a little less kind and a little more able to stand up for herself.
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But this is not that story (though Ella will discover a backbone eventually, thanks to an updated script from Chris Weitz, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2003’s About a Boy). Her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries the fashionable viper Lady Tremaine, and while you can’t blame him for succumbing to the significant charms of Cate Blanchett, you do have to wonder how he missed the predatory gleam in her eyes. Maybe that wise sage of the ages Taylor Swift is right: Boys only want love if it’s torture.
Blanchett is glorious as she swans around the house, disdainfully sizing up every stick of furniture, every piece of bric-a-brac and her kind, beautiful stepdaughter, whom she turns into a servant once her father dies. She doesn’t seem to view her own horrible daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, another Downton alum) too favorably, either. And yet Blanchett manages to project the idea that there’s more to this woman than mere banal evil. Cinderella may well be the heroine of this story, but if you wanted someone to have a few drinks with, you’d pick her stepmother in a heartbeat.
Once the stage is set and the impossibly handsome prince introduced (Richard Madden, looking much better than he did the last time we saw him on Game of Thrones), Branagh gets down to work, and Cinderella flares to incandescent life. Shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarkloukas (director of photography on Branagh’s Thor), the film is a visual jaw-dropper, its palette vibrant and heart-stopping. The costumes alone, especially Cinderella’s gorgeous blue ball gown and her stepmother’s luxurious ensembles, are worthy of Oscar consideration. Helena Bonham Carter makes a sly, funny Fairy Godmother — “I’m rather good at shoes,” she tells a dazzled Cinderella modestly — and by the time that pumpkin has sprouted wheels and mice are pulling it clothed in white steed drag, Cinderella has transformed into a thrilling adventure even though you know this story by heart.
Cinderella is, of course, something of a rescue fantasy and these days takes something of a beating for it. But the virtues Branagh touts in his film are solid. His Cinderella isn’t waiting to be rescued; she’s enduring tragedy, and even so is able to put doing the right thing ahead of her own happiness. We probably don’t teach our kids enough about the power of kindness or forgiveness, and Cinderella reminds us there are rewards to both. It’s a fairy tale that deserved another happy ending.
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera.
Director: Kenneth Branagh.
Screenwriter: Chris Weitz.
A Walt Disney release. Running time: 112 minutes. Mild thematic elements. Playing at area theaters.