Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Craig Gillespie
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, John McCrea, Mark Strong, Tipper Seifert-Cleveland, Emily Beacham, Kayvan Novack, Kirby Howell-Baptiste.
The Devil Wears Dalmatian?
The dog killing Cruella DeVil is one of the best-known villains in the Disney canon. Cruella is loosely inspired on the character created by British author Dodie Smith in her 1956 novel 101 Dalmatians. That book formed the basis for the classic 1961 Disney animated movie, which itself was remade as a live action film starring Glenn Close as Cruella DeVil, who had dalmatians dognapped and killed to make a fabulous spotted coat. Like Disney’s Maleficent before it, this enjoyable film gives us an origins story of the villainous character, and in giving us her traumatic backstory it aims to make her a more sympathetic character.
Scripted by a team of six writers that includes Tony McNamara (The Favourite, etc), Dana Fox (best known for romantic comedies like Couples Retreat, etc), Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, etc), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr Banks, etc), Steve Zissis (his first feature film) and an uncredited Jez Butterworth, this origins story is a frothy, fun filled journey, but the film feels a little bloated with an overly generous 134-minute running time. The plot is filled with moments of contrivance and complications that smack of padding.
Cruella is largely set in London of the 1970s. When the film opens in the late 60s we meet the younger Cruella, then known as Estella (and played in spiky fashion by a well-cast Tipper Seifert-Cleveland), something of a wild child, whose non-conforming behaviour and attitude sees her thrown out of her posh school. Her wild ways, rebellious attitude and her distinctive hair – black on one side, white on the other and split down the middle – has always ensured that Estella stands out. Her caring and patient mother Catherine (Emily Beacham) tries to control her daughter’s wild way.
Heading off to begin a new life in London, the pair stop off at a swanky hilltop mansion where Catherine plans to ask an old friend for some money to help set them up. But Catherine is killed after falling from a cliff, and Estella blames herself for the tragedy. She is left to fend for herself on the streets of London. She hooks up with a couple of young grifters and fellow orphans named Horace and Jasper, and they become a sort of de facto family working cons on the streets. But Estella has always been a creative girl and has her heart set on working as a fashion designer.
Ten years later she gets a chance when the adolescent Estella (now played by Oscar winner Emma Stone, from La La Land, etc) begins working in the upmarket London fashion store Liberty of London. She finds herself lumbered with menial tasks, and her efforts to try and have her flair for design recognised go largely unnoticed until her handiwork catches the attention of the imperious Baroness Von Hellman (Emma Thompson), the city’s leading fashion designer. The Baroness though is cruel and dismissive with her putdowns and scathing attitude and she belittles her employees.
But then Estella learns of a secret that sets her off on a different path and, driven by a thirst for revenge she creates the alter ego of Cruella, a flamboyant and punk styled designer whose outrageous creations and stunts challenge the Baroness’s superiority as the alpha female in the cutthroat world of London fashion.
There’s more than a touch of The Devil Wears Prada to the prickly nature of the relationship between Estella, who is desperate to succeed in the cutthroat world of high fashion, and the haughty Baroness, and the dialogue crackles at times. As expected, with a film set against the backdrop of high fashion, there are some stunning punk-style costumes designed by Oscar winner Jenny Beaven (Mad Max: Fury Road, etc). The production design from Fiona Crombie is also superb and recreates the aesthetic of London circa the 70s. The soundtrack features some great 70s songs and music that gives the material a distinctive tone.
The film features some top-notch performances, with both Stone and Thompson in sparkling form. Stone in particular embraces the complex nature of her character and her mood swings. Thompson seems to relish her role as the cold Baroness, and she becomes the real villain of the story. Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell, etc) and Joel Fry (Yesterday, etc) bring touches of humour to the material as Cruella’s hapless sidekicks Horace and Jasper. John McCrea (God’s Own Country, etc) brings style and camp swagger to his role as Artie, the cross-dressing owner of a small clothing boutique who is something of a kindred spirit for Estella. Mark Strong, who normally has such a strong screen presence, is essentially wasted here and given little to do as John, the Baroness’ loyal valet.
Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, etc) relishes the camp nature of the material and keeps things moving along at a jaunty pace. This take on Cruella is definitely not for younger children, but nonetheless it is still a lot of fun to watch.
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