WRITTEN REVIEW – Cinderella (2015)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Chris Weitz
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden & Helena Bonham Carter
Music: Patrick Doyle
Release Date: March 27th 2015
When Disney’s ‘Cinderella‘ was released in 1950 it was considered a return to form for the studio. While previous films such as ‘Bambi‘, ‘Dumbo‘ and ‘The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad‘ were well received and have become animated classics in their own right, ‘Cinderella‘ gave audiences the fairy-tale princess story again after the success of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs‘. It was a movie that would ultimately shape the next half-decade of Disney Animation and ‘Cinderella‘ is considered to be Walt Disney’s favourite movie and his favourite princess.
Now, in 2015, we have a live-action remake of Walt’s favourite movie which is coming off the back of creative flops ‘Maleficent‘ and ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ so expectations for what is considered one of the more simplistic Disney fairy-tales are all over the map. Can live-action Disney fairytales get a home run after two strikes? Or is this an arm of their company which is just a money-maker, despite the lack of quality it provides?
You all know the story of ‘Cinderella‘. In a fantasy Kingdom, a young woman named Ella (James) has grown up taking the advice of her mother’s parting words to heart; “Have courage and be kind.”. However, that philosophy is put to the test when her father passes away leaving her under the care of her step-mother, Lady Tremaine (Blanchett) and her two step-sisters. Under her new family’s oppressive rule, Ella meets the Prince of the Kingdom, Kit Charming (Madden) and the two are immediately smitten with each other. In the hopes that Ella will show up, Kit decides to host a Royal Ball but Tremaine forbids Ella to go and tears up her dress. But with the help of Ella’s fairy god-mother (Bonham Carter) she is given a new dress and a pair of glass slippers so she may win the Prince’s heart at the ball. Will Ella and Kit get their happily ever after or will Tremaine’s wicked jealousy and behaviour prevent them from finding each other?
*This review will contain mild plot-spoilers for ‘Cinderella‘ but only to the extent where I’ll only spoil what was in the 1950’s original and not anything new and different that this version of the Charles Perrault eponymous fairy tale provides*
Those who read my March 2015 Movie Preview will know that I was very sceptical about this re-imagining of ‘Cinderella‘, mainly due to Disney’s live-action fairy tale track record. ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was not only a terrible blockbuster but it completely missed the point of the source material and the original animated film on a conceptual and structural level, whereas ‘Maleficent‘ completely butchered one of the best Disney villains of all time for the sake of differentiating itself from ‘Sleeping Beauty‘. This re-telling of ‘Cinderella‘ is a very faithful adaptation of the 1950s film but the changes come in the tiny details such as Ella and Kit previously meeting before the Royal Ball, an expanded backstory (though not extraneously so) for Cinderella and the Step-Mother and a 3rd act with a couple more twists and turns than you’d expect from the story.
What ‘Cinderella‘ does that is most surprising from a 21st century re-imagining is that it plays the story with 0% irony. ‘Cinderella‘ is completely straight-faced about its morals, its concept and the universe that the characters exist in. For a story in which the crisis-point of the narrative is whether or not the Prince will be able to find the one woman in the Kingdom who can fit in the glass slipper left behind at the Palace, that’s pretty darn admirable. But it’s the fact that ‘Cinderella‘ whole-heartedly commits to this ideal is ultimately the reason it works like gang-busters.
A lot of that comes from our lead, Ella, played by Lily James and she walks the fine line between being a courageous person while still being open-minded and impeccably kind-hearted, yet still not be considered a push-over. Yes, Ella does offer her larger bedroom to her two step-sisters only to have her kindness manipulated by Lady Tremaine who has her sleep in the attic. But Cinderella manages to turn that around into something positive by befriending the mice who live up there and taking a stand by saying “No one will bother me here”. Her step-sisters give her the name “Cinderella” when she wakes up one morning having slept next to the fireplace and getting cinders on her face. This (along with other instances of name-calling and her new family’s general behaviour and animosity against her) causes Ella to break down in tears when she’s alone. Yet later on, she proudly turns her nick-name into a badge and a weapon against her sisters nearer the end of the movie.
And Cinderella’s compassion to all life is admirable as well, such as the way she befriends the mice (who don’t talk or sing in this adaptation) and it’s actually this display of affection that Kit finds so fascinating about her during their first meeting as Ella protects a Stag that he and his servants are trying to hunt. During this meeting, Ella and Kit don’t reveal who they really are (meaning that Ella does not find out he’s the prince until they meet again at the Ball) which actually makes the love-at-first-sight romance feel less shallow and more believable. And Ella’s not a doormat to those around her. When Kit tells her that they hunt the Stag because “it’s what is done”, Ella quickly responds with “Just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be done!”. And that’s the quietly brilliant ace up ‘Cinderella‘s sleeve…
The original ‘Cinderella‘ and even this version has had a lot of backlash from people by saying that it could be damaging to younger audiences because it encourages them to take abuse and for them to just wait around for someone to help them out. However, this version of ‘Cinderella‘ doesn’t seem to support that viewpoint and it’s with that initial meeting with Kit where the dynamics of the story changes. The narrator, the Fairy Godmother, says that Ella doesn’t see the world as it is. But what the world COULD be.
And that’s where the critics of ‘Cinderella‘ lose their argument.
Real talk – Yes, there’s a lot of terrible stuff in the real world. Yes, there are people out there who will take advantage of your kindness. Yes, you could argue that it’s better to teach people to be cynical and distrust others because “that’s the type of the world we live in”. But ‘Cinderella‘ makes a case for why you should NOT be okay with that. That you should STRIVE for what the world can be. That you should be kind and loyal to others, but also be courageous and stand up for what is wrong with understanding and compassion.
“Have courage and be kind.”. That’s a wonderful message for younger viewers to take away from a character who is considered to be the poster-child for bad, complacent Disney princesses. And when I went to the movie theatre the other day to watch ‘Woman In Gold‘, there was a 4 or 5 year old girl in the lobby with her parents and/or guardians and she was wearing the iconic blue Cinderella dress. If that young girl takes on board Cinderella’s morals and worldview the same way that she took on board her impeccable fashion sense then she’ll definitely be on the right track.
And Ella’s relationship with her step-mother is actually the anchor for this sort of moral to work without it becoming preachy as her backstory is more fleshed out. Yes, Lady Tremaine starts off as a bit self-righteous and trying, but she’s not exactly wicked or evil. However, when Ella’s father and her husband dies then she takes umbridge with the fact that Ella is such a noble, kind and smart individual whereas Tremaine’s daughters are dim-witted, obnoxious and not very talented at all. Another smart change is that the “Ugly step-sisters” don’t have an ugly appearance, but they’re considered “ugly” because of the people they are on the inside. A nice and well-meaning change from the original to demonstrate that beauty and ugliness comes from within. As a result, part of Lady Tremaine’s motivation is to try and drag Ella down in order to make her daughters feel more important as well as give them a better chance at being offered their hand in marriage from the Prince.
It also helps that Cate Blanchett absolutely kills it in a role that she’s clearly having a lot of fun in, while wearing the elaborate dresses and costumes of Lady Tremaine like a dream (we’ll get more into the costumes later). Not only is Cate maliciously endearing as Lady Tremaine but she adds a lot of depth to a villain who was already a fan-favourite in terms of Disney villains. One of the best moments of the film is when she discovers Ella’s glass slipper and proceeds to tell Ella what motivates her through the guise of a fairy-tale story. It’s a brilliant monologue and over the course of the movie you start to see Lady Tremaine slowly unwind and mentally fracture.
What really surprised me about ‘Cinderella‘ was how well the film works as an ensemble piece as the supporting cast are great as well. Richard Madden is easily one of the most well-rounded Prince characters alongside Chris Pine from ‘Into The Woods‘ (though this one played less for parody, of course) and it also helps that he’s immensely charming – hummana hummana hummana hummana hummana. But another smart expansion to the source-material is the relationship Kit has with his father, The King played by Derek Jacobi. The two are great on-screen together and while they don’t spend a lot of time together in the context of the runtime you do feel a genuine father-son bond and the reality of their situation in which the King wants Kit to marry to benefit the Kingdom, not necessarily because it’s who Kit wants to marry. Yes, ‘Cinderella‘ still operates under a “love-at-first-sight” mentality, but it feels more believable because Lily James and Richard Madden have chemistry on-screen and Ella is that effective of a personality during their first meeting that it’s hard not to fall in love with her.
The aforementioned Derek Jacobi is great and the King gets a nice arc over the course of the movie, Sophia McShera and Holliday Grainger are entertaining as the step-sisters as they do most of the comedic heavy-lifting in terms of slapstick and word-play. Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell are almost impossibly endearing as Ella’s parents and while Stellan Skarsgård’s character goes in an odd direction in the 3rd act, he does well as the King’s advisor. Helena Bonham Carter is a strange one in that I’m currently trying to figure out as to whether or not she made a good Fairy Godmother or not. She plays the part with a sort of passive disinterest but she still manages to get a lot of laughs out of the dialogue so maybe the point of her character is that she does this sort of thing so regularly that she doesn’t quite approach it with the wonderment that you’d expect. Either way, it’s an interesting approach to take the character and she’s definitely memorable so that’s something.
The movie’s MVP though, surprisingly is Nonso Anozie as the Captain. The character doesn’t even get a name outside of his title and he’s incredibly memorable! He has a lot of charisma, is a unique presence on-screen, works with the rest of the cast incredibly well while also being one of the true heroes of the story by being an example of the type of person who meets Cinderella’s world-view by trying to make it a better place. Anozie almost steals the movie from the rest of the cast and I’m amazed he’s not hired to be in 100 other movies a year.
The film’s third act does stumble towards the end once Ella returns from the Royal Ball leaving Kit to find her with a glass slipper that was left behind at the party. Why everything the Fairy Godmother created with her magic such as the carriage, Ella’s dress and the animal/human servants disappeared after midnight yet the slippers remain is a plot-hole that is never addressed (here or in the original). Once Ella returns home it feels like the movie is simply buying time until the climax that everyone is expecting. That’s not to say the last third isn’t engaging, it’s just that it feels like a significant downgrade from the first two acts as the movie approaches the ending that everyone knows is coming. There’s an attempt to throw in a last-minute curveball villain and a conspiracy sub-plot but it feels underdeveloped and out of character for the character it revolves around. Though I will say that the resolution between Ella and Lady Tremaine is perfect and redeems a lot of the third act.
Kenneth Branagh is an inspired fit for the material as a director with his past theatrical experience and work with Shakespeare films as well as his recent stint on blockbuster films such as ‘Thor‘ and ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit‘. It’s the work on ‘Thor‘ that naturally shows through more due to the fantastical elements, but Branagh’s theatrical trademarks do shine through due to his camera placement and character proxemics. For example, Lady Tremaine overhears a conversation and can be seen in the background through a window. Moments like that help to effectively tell the story while also being efficient with sparse cutaways. The emphasis on practical effects, sets and models is commendable and the craftsmanship shows on screen as this is possibly the best looking live-action fairytale movie ever put to screen. Sandy Powell (Three time Oscar-winning Costume Designer for ‘Shakespeare In Love‘, ‘The Aviator‘ and ‘The Young Victoria‘) works her magic here as the costumes compliment the stunning sets and just dazzle on-screen. Whether it’s the mix-matched garish colours of the step-sisters, the dark veils for Lady Tremaine or simply the hundreds of dresses, suits and costumes for the extras during the Royal Ball, I would be SHOCKED if ‘Cinderella‘ didn’t net Sandy Powell another Academy Award nomination (which would make her nominated eleven times).
The effects are appropriately whimsical from Ella’s mice friends to the magical pumpkin transformation (one of the set-piece sequences of the film has Ella riding the carriage from the Palace at midnight as the magic spell wears off). Patrick Doyle’s score is great with an emphasis on a vocal chorus and it adds gravitas to some of the film’s most memorable moments. It’s both intimate and bombastic when the scene requires it and it’s easily Doyle’s best score since 2011’s ‘Thor‘. Basically, ‘Cinderella‘ is the complete production package and honestly looks twice its $95M budget…save for some awkward audio issues. One of the Fairy Godmother’s first lines (“I’m your hairy dogmother”) was clearly dubbed in post as the dialogue doesn’t match Helena Bonham Carter’s lip movements and one of Ella’s final lines in the film has also been dubbed over. Two small issues, but they did break the near-perfect fantasy illusion that the film’s production and characters worked so hard to maintain.
Looking back, I’m not even sure why I doubted this re-imaginging. It’s a wonderful film that’s very enjoyable, a worthy and superior version than the 1950’s original and even manages to be quietly powerful and profound in the way it strengthens the protagonist and the rest of the supporting cast. ‘Cinderella‘ is an efficient and tightly-put together film taking out some problems with the original while including some details that don’t overwhelm or detract from what made the original story so appealing and iconic. It may have a problematic third act, but that’s mainly due to how great the set-up and execution beforehand was. Kenneth Branagh was a perfect fit for the material, the cast are impeccable and when I want to watch a version of this story then it’ll be this 2015 remake that I will be re-visiting.
And remember folks, “Have courage and be kind”. Those are words to live by. Because good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing that you DO.
I give ‘Cinderella‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 13th Apr 15