Kenneth Branagh Debuts Updated, Non-sexist Cinderella in Berlin Film Festival
The New Live-action Version of the Traditional Fairytale, Which Stars Lily James, Has Cinders and Prince Charming ‘Meeting on a Level Playing Field’
The Guardian, 14 February 2015
A visually-opulent retelling of 'Cinderella' by British director Kenneth Branagh has wowed its first audience at the Berlin film festival for its fresh approach to the centuries’ old fairytale. Starring Lily James (better known as Lady Rose from 'Downton Abbey') as Cinderella and Richard Madden (Robb Stark from 'Game of Thrones') as her Prince Charming, the film which had its world premiere in Berlin on Friday was praised for raising the otherwise gloomy tone of the festival. Berlin, renowned for its social-realist timbre, received a huge dose of Technicolour optimism from Branagh’s picture.
Branagh said his challenge had been to make the classic fairytale relevant to modern times. “I did want to make a film that was about courage and about kindness and about a psychological modernity in the middle of this traditional story. The Cinderella myth continues to capture our imaginations,” he said at a press briefing. He said the success of the Disney-backed project had been dependent on securing the right actors, including Cate Blanchett who plays the red-haired wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine, Helena Bonham-Carter as a witty but flawed fairy godmother, Derek Jacobi who plays the King, and Stellan Skarsgard as the Grand Duke.
Madden said he appreciated that the new take involved his prince and Cinderella meeting on a level-playing field. “The original animated version [which won the Golden Bear at the first Berlinale in 1951] was much more about this boy who comes to save the day and this version is so not like that ... it’s the strong girl by herself and a young man coming together that makes the story, rather than a far more sexist view.”
Bonham-Carter draws some of the biggest laughs in the film with her brave attempt to get Cinderella to the ball on time, destroying a greenhouse in the process of turning the pumpkin into a rather over-sized coach, at the same time as making sure that Cinderella’s glass slippers are a “comfortable fit”. She said her biggest preoccupation had been her huge LED-lit gown created by the celebrated costume designer Sandy Powell. “The logistics of going to the ladies… well, you couldn’t locate the toilet. I was a walking lamp with 4000 LED lights inside my dress so I had to have a 15lb battery back in my bum and there was a lovely Belgian man who worked for Phillips who had to come and turn me on every night.”
“We had to have our own tents because our dresses were so big,” James said, adding that the gowns had often “done the acting for you” but had been quite painful to wear.
Branagh said though more used to directing Shakespeare, he had been struck by many of the similarities between those plays and the Brothers Grimm fairytale. “We have the line Cinderella is told by her mother: ‘Have courage and be kind’; some people thought it seemed trite, but I was reminding them of 'King Lear' when Edgar says ‘Have patience and endure’ at the point he’s being put in the stocks and mocked. Patience to me equates to compassion, and endurance is a form of courage – it reminded me that these basic, human and fundamental situations get seized on by great storytellers and there are obvious resonances between all these stories.”
Asked if she had been disappointed not to be playing Cinderella, Blanchett, 45, drew much laughter after doing an impersonation of someone who has undergone a facelift by pulling at the skin around her eyes. “Let’s save that for the Sydney drag shows,” she said.