Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgaard, Nonso Anozi, Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon.
This is a superb and visually stunning live action retelling of the classic and timeless fairy tale that has become one of Disney’s most enduring and beloved animated films. But will this version stand the test of time like Disney’s animated classic and still be fondly remembered when it is over 60 years old?
There have been numerous variations and retellings of Cinderella. However, this latest version is a charming take on the classic story, and has been written by Chris Weitz (About A Boy, etc), and been directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare’s classic dramas. They resist giving the material the sort of postmodern makeover that Disney recently gave their classic animated film Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent. Starring Angelina Jolie, that was a live action makeover that reimagined the familiar tale from the perspective of the wicked witch, giving the material a darker edge and a more sinister undertone.
Thankfully Branagh and Weitz play it safe here and they don’t tamper with the familiar elements of the story. Although they do drop the musical numbers. Under Branagh’s direction this is a straightforward, old fashioned telling of the classic tale.
The film opens with a bit of backstory about Cinderella (Lily James, from Downton Abbey, etc) . When we first meet her she is known as Ella, and lives in an idyllic country house with her devoted father (Ben Chaplin) and mother (Hayley Atwell). But when her mother falls sick and dies, her father remarries and her stepmother Lady Tremaine (played here by Cate Blanchett) enters her life, along with her two monstrous, selfish and garish daughters Drisella and Anastasia (played by Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Everything seems nice and cosy until her father suddenly dies. Then the cruel and embittered stepmother takes over the house, spoiling her two daughters and banishing Ella to the attic, forcing her to do all the household chores. Despite the cruel treatment she receives at the hands of her stepmother and her two selfish, grasping and arrogant step sisters Ella remains positive.
Enter the handsome Prince Charming (played here by Richard Madden, from Game Of Thrones, etc), who meets Ella one day while riding in the forest and is attracted by her forthright manner and lack of guile and pretension. He vows to meet her again and one day marry her. Prince Charming is given more depth and becomes more of a fully rounded character here. We see him being groomed to assume the throne by his ailing father the king of the kingdom (Derek Jacobi).
A grand ball is planned in which the prince will select his bride. While the king wants only the most suitable potential brides invited, Charming insists that the invitation be extended to every eligible young woman in the kingdom. Of course the stepmother and her grasping daughters prevent Cinderella from attending. But with the help of a fairy godmother (played by Helena Bonham Carter) she attends the ball, captures the attention of the Prince, runs off before midnight, levaing behind a glass slipper… and we know the rest.
(How come when the clock strikes midnight everything reverts back to normal apart from that one slipper? Food for thought? Nevermind, this is a magical fantasy and no explanation is necessary!)
There are some good effects as the fairy godmother transforms pumpkins, mice and lizards into a magical coach, horses and attendants to enable Cinderella to attend the ball. Branagh has proven a dab hand with special effects driven movies before (especially with the Marvel adventure fantasy Thor, etc) but here he wisely doesn’t overdo the CGI special effects. He gives the film an opulent and glossy surface, with fabulous costumes from Sandy Powell, and gorgeous production design that captures the grandeur of the palace, and the lavish ball sequences are quite spectacular.
James makes for a surprisingly perky and upbeat Cinderella here and she brings a nice innocence and resilience to her performance. Blanchett almost steals the show with her scenery chewing performance as the wicked stepmother and makes her even more cruel and despicable, giving the film a darker edge. But Weitz has also given her a bit of a backstory to explain her bitterness and try to earn a modicum of sympathy.
The hunky Madden makes for a perfectly dashing Prince Charming, and he shares a great chemistry with James in their shared scenes. McShera and Grainger are perfectly cast as the grotesque step sisters with their hideous dress sense, and snarky manner, and their antics provide most of the laughs. Bonham Carter is also great in a small but important role as the fairy godmother and brings a touch of irreverence to her reading of the character. Stellan Skarsgard is also quite sly in his role as a manipulative and weasly duke anxious to protect the integrity of the throne and the kingdom.
Cinderella is a perfectly serviceable romantic fantasy, and its positive messages about magic, true love and following one’s dream will certainly appeal to teenage girls.