Cinderella - Film Review: a Visually Sumptuous Treat
Forget the hoo-ha over Lily James’s micro waist, Kenneth Branagh’s take on the fairytale is surprisingly touching and easily stands comparison with Disney's cartoon classic
Evening Standard, 27 March 2015
Cinderella’s been bad. Cinderella’s let the side down. The tricoteuses have been tut-tutting about how tiny her waist looks. Lily James, whose slimness is exaggerated by a corset and a massively spreading skirt, carelessly admitted that to fit the costume she had to stick to a liquid diet, also known as soup, while on set. For shame! Both she and the director Kenneth Branagh have insisted that it’s just how it was, that there was no airbrushing whatsoever.
Nevertheless, this 'Cinderella' has been criticised for promoting “an unrealistic beauty image, an exaggerated body type”. And then there’s the moral of the story — find your prince. “The storyline is just so appalling,” says Dr Rosie Campbell, a reader in politics at Birkbeck. Yet that is, willy nilly, the story of Cinderella, isn’t it? A story traced back to antiquity, given its classic form by Charles Perrault in the 17th century.
Of course, that doesn’t let it off the key assessment — does it provide a Positive Role Model for young women? Just think how much clutter could be cleared away by a really thorough application of this rule. Chauvet cave? The pyramids? Beethoven’s late quartets? No PRM? Trash!
Here Kenneth Branagh and scriptwriter Chris Weitz have produced a remarkably faithful, full-hearted live action rendition of 'Cinderella', well cast and sumptuously staged, picking its way carefully between Walt Disney’s classic musical animation of 1950 and Perrault’s definitive text.
To put it another way, Branagh has given the fairytale the full British-quality-drama treatment — it might almost be Shakespeare. The result is surprisingly touching.
Their revisions of the story are slight, but telling. Before Cinderella falls into the hands of her stepmother, we see more than expected of her happy childhood with her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin).
On her deathbed, her mother tells Ella “a great secret that will see you through all the trials that life can offer — have courage and be kind”.
If there is any modernisation in this Cinderella, it’s that kindness has been quietly converted here into what we now know as a superpower — not flying through the air, but simply being magically able to answer every insult and rebuff with pure kindness.
Perhaps Cinderella should make a more assertive, rebellious response to her mistreatment by her vile stepmother (Cate Blanchett, giving the role real depth) and unbearable stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, channelling Elizabeth Banks in 'The Hunger Games')? But kindness is the ultimate assertion, is it not? To make the romance between Cinderella and the prince seem more spontaneous, Weitz has also added a scene where they cutely meet before the ball, out riding in the woods, neither of them at this point knowing the other’s identity.
He tells her he’s called Kit and he’s an apprentice at the palace. She delivers her mission statement about having courage and being kind — and he says “that’s exactly how I feel”. A little bit more democratic, then.
James, Lady Rose in Downton, makes a captivatingly pretty and unaffected Cinderella (blue dresses, but soft brown eyes). She actually outdoes her animated precursor.
As the prince, Richard Madden (Robb Stark in 'Game of Thrones') isn’t quite her match, if you ask me, despite his glittering blue peepers. He’s shorter than her and doesn’t project high intelligence, shall we say.
Moreover, throughout he wears skin-tight white breeches that are extraordinarily revealing of his princely proportions. PJ Proby would blush, while Linford Christie might feel abashed. Pleats, for heaven’s sake, pleats. If there is physical exploitation in this film, it is to be found more in this department than in James’s micro waist. Elsewhere, the casting is a treat. Derek Jacobi does his distinguished thing as the old King; Nonso Anozie makes an imposing captain and Rob Brydon comes on for a delightful, all too short cameo as the royal portrait painter.
Just when you’re thinking what this film really needs is some Helena Bonham Carter, there she is as the Fairy Godmother or, as in some befuddlement, she initally announces, Cinderella’s “hairy dogfather”. She’s terrific, slightly batty as well as imperious, saying, as she confronts the pumpkin, “I don’t usually work with squashes — too mushy.” When she finally says “You shall go to the ball”, you’ve completely forgotten to expect it.
The transformation scenes are all lavishly state-of-the-art, yet the film stays physically grounded. When the golden carriage turns back, mid-flight, into a pumpkin, it’s bumpy, noisy and reverberative. At the ball, the incredible chandeliers are real while the glass slipper (actually, it’s high-heeled) is Swarovski crystal.
Yet the movie is given an old-fashioned Disney feel, too, by being shot on filmstock, not digital, with that wide-screen look. And, while not a musical, the soundtrack, playing round and round with the old song, Lavender’s Blue, slams home all the romance.
Usually I find the ruthless corporate manipulativeness of Disney hard to take. As a reminder of that, screenings of Cinderella are being prefixed by 'Frozen Fever', effectively a trailer for 'Frozen 2', a song and dance routine about Anna’s birthday preparations being complicated by Elsa catching a cold, which had me writhing in my seat.
But Branagh has made this film his own — and his real-life 'Cinderella' easily stands comparison with Walt’s own cartoon classic.
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