If there’s anything negative to be said about Kenneth Branagh’s fairly straightforward adaptation of the Disney animated classic Cinderella, it’s that it was only a fairytale. Branagh breathes a beauty, elegance, and wit into this new palimpsest of the beloved European folk tale (most famously told by the Brothers Grimm), and its charm will last with you for a long time. This is definitely not a modernized, jaded, snarky take on the Cinderella story; for those of you wanting the full-on fairytale, where the noble are just, the damsel in distress is saved, and all get their just deserts, this is the one you want.
Working from a script by The Twilight Saga: New Moon and The Golden Compass adapter Chris Weitz, Branagh goes all-out to envelope us in a majestic land rich with sparkling life and grand vistas, with maybe just a hint of magic hidden in the hedgerows somewhere. Branagh makes sure that the royal kingdom is lush and vibrant, with nary a sign of unpleasantness or worry. Well, almost nary a sign; you see, if you’re not familiar with the tale of Cinderella, here’s a primer.
The beautiful Ella (Lily James) lives with her loving father (Ben Chaplin) on his palatial estate, with her mother (Hayley Atwell) having died in her childhood. Now a young woman, Ella wholeheartedly throws her support behind her father remarrying, thus gaining a stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters, Drisella (Sophia McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). At first, it seems like they’ll become a huge family, but it becomes very apparent that Ella’s stepfamily sees her more as their scullery maid rather than their equal.
Worse yet, her father dies, leaving the house and its contents to her stepmother; together, all three of them pile abuse and misery on Ella, making her work long hours for them and cutting her completely off of anything that makes her happy. She is so named “Cinderella” because she has to sleep next to a dying fire full of cinders to keep warm (Cinder + Ella = do I need to spell it out?). Eventually, their King (Derek Jacobi) wants to make sure that his son, the Prince (Richard Madden) is married and can carry on the bloodline. Because of a chance meeting with Cinderella in the forest, the Prince ensures that the Royal Ball – where the Prince is to choose a wife – will be open to all eligible women, common or wealthy. From there… the legend grows.
Cinderella is full of good morals and themes, standing as a perfect family movie. “Be kind and have courage,” Ella’s mother implores as she lies sickly and near death’s door; throughout Ella’s life, we see that she never loses sight of this advice, exemplifying her mother’s maxim from day to day. Even in dealings with her brutal stepmother and harsh stepsisters, Ella retains her gentle demeanor, yet buries her sorrows in her work and in her camaraderie with the house mice (one of many nods to the 1950 animated film).
Weitz’s script never panders or condescends, keeping the fairytale elements first and foremost with this adaptation. There are no latter-day sociological intrusions, political leanings, or anachronistic language; this is just a magical story told through Branagh’s lens. A master storyteller practiced at the art of the sumptuous, Branagh maintains focus on our heroine Ella, as he surrounds her with ample amounts of adventure and drama. Lily James portrays Ella with an ethereal devotion and grace, being careful not to be too wishy-washy or overly plain, making Ella the woman her mother had always hoped she would become. Balancing James’ soulfulness is Cate Blanchett’s wickedness as Ella’s stepmother, a slave to appearance and wealth. She’s written as a survivor (read: marrying to keep herself and her children in the style to which they’re accustomed), and seems to exist only to further her place in the social hierarchy, putting on one face to the public while being cold and calculating behind closed doors. Blanchett gives a brilliant performance, the likes of which I haven’t seen since Annette Bening in a similar role in American Beauty.
In today’s drab-filled and narcissistic society, it would be all too easy to make Cinderella a product of the times, full of sarcasm and over-wittiness. Branagh’s Cinderella is exactly the opposite of all of this, a perfect fairytale in a landscape almost devoid of them. Delightful in every way, Cinderella takes us back to lighter times when we can throw away the world’s cares for two hours and sink ourselves into pure magic. There’s a lot of splendor at work here, truly beautiful to behold and enjoy, and it’s thanks to everyone in front of and behind the camera firing on all cylinders and transporting us into our starry-eyed childhoods. And if you stick around for the latter part of the end credits (it’s a mercifully short credit roll), you’ll hear a song that will bring the film – and its surprises and wonders – full circle.