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.