The story of Cinderella was first written down sometime in the 16th century by the Italian writer Giambattista Basile. Since then, the tale of the chambermaid who escapes an oppressive life by wearing a pretty dress and impressing a handsome prince has become an inescapable part of Western culture. Told in every narrative medium, the story has been inverted, subverted, diverted, and perverted in every possible way. So perhaps the only thing left for Disney’s new live-action Cinderella to do is to go old-fashioned, straight-up, and traditional with the story, which is what it does. The question is, what does this movie do that the other versions of the tale haven’t? I kept looking for an answer to that while watching this handsomely appointed film, but I never found it.
Lily James plays Ella, a wealthy merchant’s daughter who first loses her mother (Hayley Atwell) and then her father (Ben Chaplin) to disease, after which her dad’s tyrannical new wife (Cate Blanchett) treats her as a servant. One of the stars of TV’s Downton Abbey, James is perfectly nice in a role that calls on her to be that, but Anna Kendrick made a more moving Cinderella just three months ago in Into the Woods. James does dance well, and she sings “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” over the end credits well enough to make you wish this had been a musical. The only time she really pops off the screen is when she meets Prince Charming (Richard Madden, looking blessedly free of his Game of Thrones gloom), when she shows enough intelligence to make you believe this prince might be impressed by a woman he doesn’t know.
The film is directed by Kenneth Branagh, and I think I may have to revise my opinion of Branagh as an actor’s director. A powerful actor himself, he routinely drew terrific performances out of his casts in his early Shakespeare films and even his non-Shakespeare ones like Peter’s Friends and A Midwinter’s Tale. Since the turn of the century, though, he’s had Michael Caine, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, and Keira Knightley under his direction, and the only one who’s been anywhere near his or her best was Tom Hiddleston in Thor. Here, the director doesn’t get much shading out of Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, and Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera are dutifully stupid and shallow but no more as the stepsisters. Helena Bonham Carter is cast against type as the fairy godmother but doesn’t deliver anything surprising in that guise. There’s a funny bit with comedian Rob Brydon as a court painter, but it’s over and gone in a flash.
I must give the filmmaker some credit here, though. Everything generally looks right, with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos giving a stately cast to the proceedings and costume designer Sandy Powell taking her cues from both the 1950 animated film and the sculptured gowns that became popular in the ensuing decade. The tale’s more delicate magic does seem to elude Branagh — the pumpkin’s transformation into a carriage fails to raise the pulse, and the multifaceted glass slippers don’t look like something you might want to wear. I could have used more, too, out of the big dance sequence when the prince has eyes only for our girl.
Still, the movie doesn’t drag, and Branagh seems completely at ease in a film that’s much girlier than anything he has directed before. Screenwriter Chris Weitz contributes a few pleasing additions to the familiar story, like the prince’s relationship with his stern but loving father (Derek Jacobi) and a monologue for the stepmother about the path she took to becoming the terrible person she is. The fairy godmother’s message of “Have courage and be kind” is something you don’t actually hear much of in today’s films, and it’s a pleasant change. Maybe if that message had come through more powerfully, I would have seen a compelling reason for this new Cinderella. I guess the best recommendation I can give is that if you have daughters, they probably want to see this, and they’re unlikely to go away disappointed
Starring Lily James and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Chris Weitz. Rated PG.[/box_info]