Film Review – Cinderella
At first glance, one may think that Kenneth Branagh directing the latest version of Cinderella (2015) would be something of a headscratcher. In hindsight, he was the perfect choice to handle this material. Trained by Shakespearean theater, Branagh has been endowed with the type of visual aesthetic that fits right in with this fairytale. The style and era fall into his wheelhouse. He is in his comfort zone here, returning to a world that calls to mind his Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) rather than Thor (2011).
Branagh succeeds with this latest adaptation by doing something most modern fairytales fail to do: be sincere. Many of today’s updates of these classic stories come with a level of cynicism – they’re either too tongue in cheek or try too hard to adhere toward contemporary sensibilities. By taking a bit of a retroactive approach, Branagh has made Cinderella fresh. There’s something comforting in how earnest the film is. It’s not trying to represent today’s society, but call back to a belief where goodness and kindness can overcome whatever hardships one faces. There’s no winking to the camera; the performers go about their roles as straightforward and genuine as possible.
One aspect that comes to mind is how well Branagh paints his visuals. The production design, set decoration, and costumes blend fantasy with old world reality. Yes, there are lots of pretty colors and plenty of magical elements, but it’s grounded just enough to be believable. The tuxedos and ball gowns are well designed, giving each character their own identity without ever going over the top. The lighting is expressive but never intruding, as though everything were lit by candles. The magnificent palace of the Prince (Richard Madden) has rich textures. In one scene, the Prince escorts Cinderella (Lily James) through a hall of massive paintings, something you would see in a museum. During the grand ball, I was reminded of the style Branagh incorporated in Hamlet, or what Luchino Visconti did in The Leopard (1963).
The plot…well…do we really need to go over that? A young girl, a wicked step mother and wicked step sisters, a handsome prince, a fairy godmother, midnight, a glass shoe, etc. Chris Weitz’s screenplay adheres closely to how we remember the story unfolding. Because the tone takes a classical approach, the plot feels rather thin. I was surprised to realize that the runtime goes just under two hours, because some of the plot points are so streamlined that there aren’t many surprises that happen. When Cinderella meets her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), it comes off like we’re putting a checkmark next an item on a grocery list.
What works is Branagh’s insistence to create these characters with multiple layers. He’s patient enough to have them develop naturally where we can understand their point of view and actually invest in who they are. Yes, Cinderella goes through the machinations of a familiar story, but we also learn about her relationship with her lost parents (Hayley Atwell/Ben Chaplin). Yes, her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) is cruel, but we learn of her tragic past and the fear of her natural born daughters (Sophie McShera/Holliday Grainger) living in poverty. And yes, the Prince is your usual handsome man in nice clothes, but his relationship with his father (Derek Jacobi) is heartfelt – we can understand why the king urges the prince to marry so quickly.
Lily James takes the central role in her hands with convincing fashion. She plays Cinderella like we would expect: with a good-natured spirit. However, she is no pushover. Cinderella is an optimist and a dreamer, but she has a breaking point. James fills the role with inner strength, able to stand up against the odds and push back without making it seem forced. Her chemistry with Richard Madden is tangible. Both the prince and Cinderella meet each other on a level playing field, and what makes this incarnation of the two interesting is that they fall in love not just because of what they look like, but because their personalities connect so strongly.
Cate Blanchett shows once again why she is one of the best actresses working today. Her performance as the evil stepmother both steals every scene she’s in while remaining understated. It looks like Blanchett is barely trying while remaining so on target in her performance. The stepmother can switch from friendly and funny to condescending and mean in a heartbeat. Yet there’s a vulnerability she exudes that doesn’t make us hate her so much as pity her.
The classical style of Cinderella will play well to its younger demographic, but the maturity in the execution will draw appreciation from older audience members. It’s not perfect: much of the CGI looks pretty artificial (especially with Cinderella’s animal companions), and some of the broader comedy plays as fairly tacky. But when Branagh hits the right notes, he milks it for all it’s worth. I was completely taken off guard with how much I enjoyed this one, and I think if you give it chance, you will be too.