Excerpted from Young Love: “Cinderella” and “It Follows”
The New Yorker, 16 March 2015
The tone of the new “Cinderella” is set in an early scene, when the heroine’s mother declares, “I believe in everything.” O.K., here it is. For the next hundred minutes or more, we get the story straight, with no strings or second thoughts attached. Cinderella (Lily James) is the child of a loving mother (Hayley Atwell) and an equally doting father (Ben Chaplin). They dwell in a meadow-girt house — a small and cloudless kingdom of their own — inside a larger kingdom that is smilingly ruled by an elderly monarch (Derek Jacobi), soon to be succeeded by his merry yet thoughtful son, Kit (Richard Madden). Cinderella’s mother dies, very gently, and her place is taken by a stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and her querulous daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera). Cinderella’s father dies, on a journey, leaving her to be bullied and put to work. When a ball is held at the royal palace, she is stopped from going by the stepmother, only to be rescued and reclothed by a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter). Onward we dance, to the ending that no spoiler can harm. The slipper is fashioned from glass, and it fits.
What are we to make of this? It is a Disney production, written by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, and it’s all in live action, brocaded with special effects, and deeply in debt to the animated version of 1950. Indeed, there is barely a frame of Branagh’s film that would cause Uncle Walt to finger his mustache with disquiet. The effect is to erase any memory not just of DreamWorks’ “Shrek” franchise, where Pinocchio gags were tossed around like toys, but also of Disney’s own “Enchanted,” which held up the figures of legend, like the prince and the sugar-sweet maiden, as if in quotation marks. At a time when that deconstructive urge is the norm, and in an area of fiction—the fairy tale—that has been trampled by critical theory, Branagh has delivered a construction project so solid, so naïve, and so rigorously stripped of irony that it borders on the heroic. You could call it “Apocalypse Never.”
The principal source here is Charles Perrault, whose cluster of fairy stories, published in 1697, introduced the pumpkins and the godmother. With that love of transformative magic, he remains a patron saint of Disney — far more so than the Grimms, who gave us, in dripping detail, the stepsisters’ valiant efforts to make the slipper fit. (One of them amputated her toes; the other sliced off a chunk of her heel.) The father’s role, in many versions of the tale, was dismayingly dark, either compliant with the abuse of his child or tarred with incest. New Disney, on the other hand, follows old Disney by arranging for the father’s demise, and thus for the enshrining of his virtue, although I did catch the breath of something creepy in the closeups of Ben Chaplin’s fond and proprietary smirk.
So what will summon children to the film? Not, I suspect, the exalting of courage and kindness in Weitz’s screenplay, which will leave them feeling more badgered than convinced; or the animated short, “Frozen Fever,” that will be shown with “Cinderella,” and which struck me as sickly and confused. Rather, what crowns the movie, flourishing the fullness of its purpose, is color. When, with the ball afoot, our heroine’s gown is converted from a demure and serviceable pink to an empyrean blue, starred all over with crystals as if it were cut from the night sky, the girls in the movie theatre — fans of the full-length “Frozen,” I presume — will not only swoon but get the hint that Cinderella is now ready to be royal. You could try telling them that they are being drugged by sexist and imperialist archetypes that lost their potency decades, if not centuries, ago, but stand by to be strangled with your own Twizzlers. Some myths just will not go away.
The same is true of the tresses. Branagh’s coiffure, when he played Reinhard Heydrich, in “Conspiracy” (2001), was dyed to an Aryan lightness that made him frightening to behold, but, in the spectrum of fairy tales, that won’t wash. Even if you haven’t read Marina Warner’s “From the Beast to the Blonde” (a book that every legend-hunter should own), you can scarcely miss the favor that is routinely shown, by Perrault and his peers, to the flaxen-haired. Gentlemen prefer blondes, and they marry them. Life, like the complexion of villains, isn’t fair. That is why, in this latest “Cinderella,” no fewer than three brunettes — Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, and Hayley Atwell — are kitted out with neck-ricking heaps of golden locks, while the one true blonde, Cate Blanchett, becomes a vulpine orange-red. As compensation for this old-school moral palette, the movie is granted a broader racial range; the king presides over a multi-ethnic land, and his son’s black sidekick (Nonso Anozie) proves crucial to uniting the lovers. Branagh is at ease with this equality, not making a big deal of it, just as his “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993) was improved and beautified by the presence of Denzel Washington, even if the film was a shade too sunny for that troubled play.
The production designer, on the new movie, is Dante Ferretti, a trusted collaborator of Scorsese and Fellini. (Forty years before “Cinderella,” he designed Pasolini’s “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.” It’s been a long journey.) You can gauge Ferretti’s influence not just in the lushness of the rooms but in the doorways that frequently frame the action; in leading our gaze from one room into the next, they kindle a quiet belief that we are not so much watching a story as glimpsing or overhearing it, much as it was told and retold through time. As for the costumes, I imagine that the Academy Award already has Sandy Powell’s name on it, and has been shoved in a drawer until she can swing by and pick it up next year. To date, she has ten nominations and three wins. One more won’t hurt.
The most telling shot in “Cinderella” is the first entrance of the stepmother, the train of whose outfit we gawk at, from behind, well before we see her face. (And even that is veiled.) The greens that Blanchett wears run from deep and rustling — suggesting that her character, however sophisticated, has emerged like a primitive legend from some Germanic forest — to an acidic lime sheen that would, we feel, be poisonous to the touch. Although her braying laugh is perhaps too vulgar a honk for an actress as sly as Blanchett, she atones for it with a delicious scene in which, on a private visit, she meets the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgård). He is the court’s resident bad apple, and the two of them have plans. “Are you threatening me?” he asks. “Yes,” she says, with the calmness of a seducer. Could they be entwined in anything more than the wish to thwart Cinderella? Let’s just say it was no surprise to learn, in the final voice-over, that the two of them quit the kingdom, and were never seen again. And they both lived hotly ever after.