“You shall not go to the ball!” Cate Blanchett’s evil stepmother wags her pointed finger in Cinderella’s disheartened face, and for a moment all seems hopeless. Except, of course, that we know that she will go to the ball. It’s a tale as old as time. Ever since Charles Perrault penned his definitive version of the tale in the late seventeenth century, and since Disney first immortalised the tale back in 1950, modern audiences can’t escape from the simple, universally-acknowledged truth, that Cinderella does go to the ball; that her wicked stepmother and stepsisters get their just deserts; and that she lives happily ever after. This is the hurdle Kenneth Branagh’s live action version constantly tries to stumble over: how to re-vamp the action and keep his audience guessing in a story everybody knows like the back of their hand.
Jumping on the bandwagon of Disney’s quasi-feminist movement following the unparalleled success of Frozen last year, Cinderella isn’t so much going for an action heroine of the likes of Elsa, or even Merida in Brave; it’s not about a woman capable of fighting like a man, it’s about a woman capable of holding her own – of not succumbing to the will of men or women, of carving her own destiny by way of her own qualities and achievements. In many ways, Cinderella is not remarkably fussed with reshaping or unraveling the classic fairytale to appeal to a modern audience – it’s often proudly old-fashioned and fiercely admirable of its animated predecessor. It takes Disney back to its centuries-old folklore origins, steeped in a semi-medieval and semi-fantastical world that has its own set of rules and regulations.
Downton Abbey’s Lily James is Ella, whose habit of sleeping by the dying embers of the fireplace for warmth prompts her dastardly stepfamily to coin her eponymous nickname. James is effortlessly amiable and vulnerable as the sugary centre of this fairytale, and she carries the weight of the picture quite spectacularly. Against brutal odds, Cinderella’s “kind and courageous” mantra is saved from becoming at times too sickeningly sweet by James’ grounded performance. Though her scenes are often exploited for sentimentality, she never patronises the material; she extrapolates its emotional core and manages to forget that she’s in a fairytale.
Of course, in the spiciest scene-stealing role, Cate Blanchett as wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine does threaten at times to sweep the film from beneath Cinderella’s feet, but Miss James is more than capable of rising to the challenge, and their final scene together is a terrific showdown of acting chops. Screenwriter Chris Weitz is wise to unpick Lady Tremaine beyond the point of two-dimensional villainy. As Helena Bonham Carter’s narrator tells us, “she too had known grief”, and we see flashes of a woman broken and dispirited in her own tragic way. Does it justify the way she treats her stepdaughter? No. But it does add a layered sense of motivation for her: namely her growing concern for securing the futures of her ugly (on the inside) stepdaughters, emphatically played with great comic effect by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera.
From the moment she meets her dashing prince (Richard Madden) in the forest, we know that Cinderella is just a headstrong “country girl” looking for her happily ever after. Prince Kit, who is anxiously “apprenticing” his father’s role as King, is suitably charming, and the filmmakers have wisely sprinkled him with more than a handful of modesty to make up for the character’s inherently handsome exterior, though he’s still a little dull. Thankfully, Branagh-regular Derek Jacobi is on fine form as the dying King who learns to bestow upon his son the greatest gift he possibly can: the ability to choose a bride for himself – for love, and not for power – and Stellan Skarsgård is a welcome addition to the tale as a scheming and conniving duke.
Academy Award winner Sandy Powell graces the film with lavish costume design so vivid that the colours almost burst through the screen and strangle us. Every ball gown, corset and royal robe (including Richard Madden’s ludicrously tight trousers) has been stunningly stitched to perfection. The stepsisters’ nauseatingly flowery garments are a particular highlight, and one can’t forget Cinderella’s famous ball dress, pimped and furnished by the Fairy Godmother from something you might have found on Strictly Come Dancing into a luxuriously prim piece of princess-wear. The ball scene itself is a marvel of cinematic splendor. No expenses have been spared on recreating a flamboyantly regal palace, with meandering camerawork and elegant ball-dancing choreography to boot.
Cinderella is without a doubt a visually rewarding film. The famous transformation from plump pumpkin to golden carriage is fantastically creative, with the actors playing the metamorphosed anthropomorphic goose and lizards providing ample comic fun. The CGI mice test audience patience with their incessant squeaking, but their transfiguration into big-eared horses is equally wonderfully inventive. All this of course is owed to Helena Bonham Carter’s wonderfully brief Fairy Godmother – something of a cross between the sweet simplicity of Glinda in The Wizard of Oz and a tipsy Julia Child – who oversees Ella’s evolution from dirty servant girl to the most beautiful maiden in the land.
The final act is where the film feels a little deflated and rushed, in what should have been the point at which Weitz and Branagh chose to expand the story the most. We know how the search for the owner of the glass slipper will pan out, so a few more surprises would not have passed unwelcome. It would have been satisfying to see the stepmother and her daughters receive their comeuppance, but the family-friendly Disney motto prevails, and perhaps they need no greater punishment than to witness the ultimate futility and failing of their ill-intended labours. That is justice enough. What’s important to Disney is not that their antagonists are bound for hell, but that their good-hearted heroines and heroes are bound for prosperity.
The biggest problem is the disappointing deficiency of ambition and originality here. What happened to that classic Disney magic and flare? Branagh stays a little too safe. He’d have benefitted from listening to Ella’s empowering words, “just because it’s what’s done, doesn’t mean it’s what should be done”. The original – and quite literal – rags to riches story makes for a feel-good live action romp with visually resplendent set pieces, but it lacks the kick of more ironic and self-conscious endeavours at the fairytale genre demonstrated so aptly by Enchanted. It’s certainly never uncomfortable viewing, but the glass slipper is by no means a perfect fit here.