CINDERELLA Movie Review – Everything Old is New Again
Breaking the decades-long streak of revisionist takes on European fairy tales, including Disney’s own Maleficent just last year, Kenneth Branagh’s (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Thor, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hamlet, Henry IV) adaptation of Cinderella unfolds as an overly familiar, by-the-numbers adaptation, thematically regressive and ultimately, dramatically bland, dull, and inert. But fairy tales, regressive or not, continue to strike chords with popular audiences due to their wish-fulfillment aspect (at least in their Disneyfied versions, that is). Add to that a brilliantly pitched turn by Cate Blanchett as the archetypical evil stepmother – here given a moment or two of insight into her villainy and the reasons thereof – and opulent, lavish visuals, including sure-to-be-Oscar nominated costumes by three-time Oscar Winner Sandy Powell (Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, The Young Victoria) and full-scale sets courtesy of fellow three-time Oscar-winner Dante Ferretti (The Aviator, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Hugo) and the result is all the more visually pleasurable and palatable, if still undermined by the aforementioned narrative and thematic problems.
Taking an overly reverential, slavishly faithful approach to the source material (Charles Perrault’s 1697 iteration, Disney’s 1950 animated classic), screenwriter Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy) opens not with say, the introduction of Blanchett’s evil stepmother, Lady Tremaine, decked out in ‘40s-influenced fashions, and her spoiled, self-centered daughters, Drizella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), but with Cinderella as a happy, materially and emotionally comfortable preteen, minutes before her life goes sideways and she loses her mother (Hayley Atwell) to a mystery illness. Losing her mother, however, only draws Cinderella (actually Ella) closer to her merchant father, (Ben Chaplin). After a suitable period of mourning (his, not hers) that takes Cinderella (Lily James) into her teenage years, Cinderella’s father decides to marry Lady Tremaine. In short order, Cinderella’s father goes away on a business trip abroad and perishes, leaving Cinderella in the care of her stepmother. Why Cinderella’s father, presumably a man wise to the ways of the legal world, leaves without a proper will in place is a mystery (like so many others), Branagh and Weitz leave unanswered, hoping moviegoers enchanted with Cinderella’s story of loss and abasement, not to mention those visuals, will keep them in a receptive, non-questioning mode.
Branagh and Weitz cover Cinderella’s fall from stepdaughter to servant girl with relative efficiency. They introduce Prince “Kit” Charming (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones) in a typical “meet-cute” moment in the forest. He’s engaging in a royal hunt while Cinderella, angry and upset at her lowly lot in life, has temporarily escaped on horseback. She refuses to give her name – necessary for the gossamer thin narrative that follows – while he becomes instantly besotted as princes tend to do in fictional 19th-century European kingdoms. It’s reason enough for the prince to convince his ailing father (Derek Jacobi) and uncle, a grand duke (Stellan Skarsgård), to hold the ball and open it to royals and commoners alike. That, in turn, sets the stage for a cameo appearance by Cinderella’s one-and-only fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, in high-camp mode), and surprisingly sub-par, unfinished transformation effects (e.g., pumpkin-into-carriage, animals-into-coachmen, etc.).
Luckily, Cinderella isn’t an effects-heavy film, but it’s also difficult not to hold poor effects, especially during a sequence meant to invoke wonder and awe (and some magic), against Disney. Sub-par visual effects, however, are just a minor problem. Branagh and Weitz’s Cinderella never rises above the passive, reactive character found in Disney’s 1950 animated classic (or practically every iteration of the fairy tale for that matter). She has to be saved twice, once by her fairy godmother (who, for reasons left unexplained, never appeared before to help the downtrodden Cinderella in her many hours, days, and years of need) and later by the prince (“Go Patriarchy!” “Go Divine Rights of Kings!”). Costumes, production design, and Cate Blanchett’s scene-stealing stepmother, however, will keep audiences sufficiently distracted, if not engaged, to ignore Cinderella’s retrograde themes and subtext, just like Disney intended.