Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Stellan Skarsgård, Nonso Anozie, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Eloise Webb
MPAA Rating: (for mild thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 3/13/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 12, 2015
There are many things about certain fairy tales that we take for granted because we've heard them told so many times. We start to recall the specifics of various versions while overlooking the basics of the story. One such tale is the one about an orphaned young woman who becomes a servant for her stepfamily and, after some magic and a lot of commotion over a piece of footwear, marries a prince. The story of Cinderella on film is almost as old as cinema itself (an 1899 short by Georges Méliès being the first adaptation), so there is some legitimacy to the concern that there is nothing left in or about the story to explore. Cinderella responds by giving us the basics, and that approach works well enough.
Watching the film is a reminder that these fairy tales last because there's something universal and timeless in their concerns and morals. Within the story of Cinderella, for example, is a rebuke to the notion that class determines one's place in the world and inherent worth. We take that obvious critique of class distinction for granted, because we instead might be remembering songs, animated mice, one actress' portrayal of the character compared to another's, or how a revisionist telling shifted the perspective from the main character to a supporting one.
There's nothing superficially revelatory about this version of the story—no songs to hum (notwithstanding the songs from the 1950 Disney animated film that play during the credits), no wildly different interpretation of any particular character, no attempt to modernize or otherwise change the tale. It is, though, slightly revelatory in its own, simple way of presenting the story as we already know it, allowing us to see it for what it is.
The film embraces the simplicity of it all. It allows its big moments to linger for a while longer than is necessary to move the plot forward. Its goal is simply to tell this story without much embellishment or distraction but, more importantly, to tell it with plenty of care and admiration.
Take the way the screenplay by Chris Weitz fleshes out the story's prologue and structures the narrative in such a way that the introductory scenes flow naturally into the story proper. A young Ella (Eloise Webb) lives in a country manor with her father (Ben Chaplin), a travelling merchant, and mother (Hayley Atwell), who teaches her daughter that there is magic in the world as long as one believes in it. Ella talks with animals in and around the house. It's a small kingdom for her, the surprisingly literate narrator informs us. Indeed, the dialogue itself is rather smartly fashioned—a sort of faux poetry interrupted by rat-a-tat bursts of comedy.
Ella's life changes when her mother dies. Years later, a grown Ella (Lily James) and her father have proceeded with their lives (There's a fine transitory montage of the pair walking through a field and becoming older as our narrator fills us in on their improving emotional state), but the father wants to marry the widow of a deceased business acquaintance. The woman (Cate Blanchett), who becomes Ella's stepmother, brings her fair but vain and artless daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) with her to the manor.
Ella's father dies on a business trip, and at this point, everyone knows what follows. Ella's stepmother and stepsisters force her to become a servant to them, giving her the nickname "Cinderella" for her tendency to fall asleep next to the dying embers of the hearth. Ella meets a prince (Richard Madden) in the woods, and against his father the king's (Derek Jacobi) wishes, the prince invites the entire kingdom—nobility, aristocracy, and commoner alike—to a great ball. There's the business with Ella's fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the role with an otherworldly impatience with the dreariness of human affairs) and, of course, that other business with a glass slipper ("Make way for the slipper," a member of the king's guard proclaims as the regal caravan tours the countryside).
We know all of this. Weitz and director Kenneth Branagh are fully aware that we know all of it. What they do with the material, though, is to take a piece of advice from the fairy godmother, who tells Ella to enjoy her short time at the ball as an anonymous princess while it lasts.
The film savors its moments. Ella's arrival at the ball becomes an extended dance between her and the prince, as the camera spins around the twirling couple in a movement that matches the ecstasy of the duo's gleaming smiles. The fairy godmother's "mending" of Ella's torn and tattered dress becomes a shot lost in time and space as the gown transforms into a shining, blue beacon. The stepmother explains her own tale of "once upon a time" in a way that doesn't excuse her cruelty but at least offers us some comprehension of it.
The film relishes in the fact that it is a handsome production, assembled from Victorian garb and actual, physical sets that, in this era of computer-generated shortcuts, feel magical in their sense of the pastoral and the elegant. The film contains visual effects of varying levels of success (The coach and its occupants returning to their natural state is a highlight), but they aren't the focus.
That belongs to the story, which, yes, we know inside and out by now. Cinderella doesn't see that as a hindrance, though. The film sees it as an opportunity to make an old tale new again and let us take from it whatever we will.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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