Cinderella (2015)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/14/15 22:27:51
Much of Kenneth Branagh's career as a director has been spent attempting to make formal things full of dense language into broadly-entertaining movies: Lots of Shakespeare, to be certain, but also "Frankenstein", "Sleuth", a Mozart opera, Tom Clancy, and "Thor". It's been a mixed bag, but it's still somewhat surprising that a fairy tale like "Cinderella" at times seems to be more constricting than any of the rest. He and the film eventually rise above that, but it's a bit of a shock that a story which has been so ripe for reinvention for so long winds up being so by-the-numbers here.To be fair, he's a little boxed in - he hasn't been able to direct his own script in almost a decade, and Disney's spring "revival" movies are going to hew toward familiar imagery. Thus it is with this one: We're introduced to Ella (Lily James), a kind an optimistic girl who loses both her mother (Hayley Atwell) and father (Ben Chaplin), but not before the latter has remarried, and this stepmother (Cate Blanchett) arrives with two daughters of her own (Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera), banishing Ella to the attic and (laid-off) servant's quarters. She meets a handsome prince (Richard Madden) in the forest, not realizing Kit's true position, and while her stepfamily tries to prevent her from attending the ball that the prince has opened to all of the land's maidens, a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) gives her a chance to attend in style, although the magic will wear off at midnight.
I feel silly recounting the plot of Cinderella, but it demonstrates how the film winds up in a similar position - we know this story, and both Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz struggle with that familiarity. While plenty happens to get Ella to the point where the main activity of the plot really kicks off, she is a fairly passive character through much of it, and there winds up being a lot of narration and baldly laying out the philosophy that she and her parents shared. We know all this, and the filmmakers know we know it, but there are only so many distinctive details they can fit in without bending it too much. Those bits feel like little nubs where branches have been broken off the main limbs of the tree, leaving behind interesting signs that something could grow there but little else. The narration isn't the only source of wit here, but wordplay is one of the few ways things can be spiced up.
Thankfully, things pick up once the story gets around to Ella and Kit meeting and then especially the night of the ball. The familiarity of the story becomes an asset, as the filmmakers don't play everything with a light touch, but they cast no shadow on the things that make the characters happy, while Helena Bonham Carter gets to play the fairy godmother as a bit scattered and almost self-referential, a bit of silliness to give the visual effects bits around her some personality. Branagh and company capture the honest joy of the moment there, not focused on how it will end even though this is a fairy tale where one does have to watch the clock.
He's helped greatly by how appealing Lily James and Richard Madden are, together and separately. James plays a young woman so relentlessly upbeat that she could come across as saccharine, and yet she never does. She really glows with good cheer which is able to exist alongside sadness or confusion at others' cruelty, and she makes the kindness of Cinderella an active way of facing the world when the character could be seen as not actually doing much. Madden, meanwhile, makes a likablly humble prince, able to come across as clever without being terribly self-satisfied about it. He also plays well off Derek Jacobi as his father the King - for a movie unabashedly for young girls, it has some great little father-son moments.
It's also got Cate Blanchett, who has to make the stepmother a villain whose motivations we can understand even if she is, undoubtedly, the villain of the piece. It's a nice trick, how she's able to make this woman wounded as well as selfish, ambitious, and casually vindictive. It's clear that some of these traits have been passed down to her children, even if her intelligence hasn't, giving Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera mostly mean comedy to play. There's enough nuance to them to make one wonder of this version of Cinderella was, at some point, going to approach subjects like dealing with step-parents/siblings/children a bit more sympathetically, or dig into how teenage girls compete with each other, but it doesn't go there or far into the palace intrigues around Kit and the state of the kingdom (Stellan Skarsgård is kind of squandered as the Grand Duke pushing for a political wedding); the film instead keeps more to the traditional fantasy without coming across as being materialistic in the easy it could have done.
That said, if a movie is going to focus on the fantasy of a royal ball, it should look as great as this one. The production and costume designers really outdo themselves here, with the obvious centerpiece being Ella's ballgown, but in some ways I love the way that stepsisters Anastasia and Drisella are outfitted more - they're just so perfectly tacky whole attempting to give the impression of elegance and sophistication. The castle is beautiful while Ella's house is homey, albeit with a sense of hollowness once she loses her father. Her animal friends don't speak, but they're expressive nonetheless, although the use of CGI is initially jarring; do you really need to animate am ordinary goose? Longtime Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle contributes a fine score.To a certain extent, "Cinderella" is a victim of unfortunate timing - it comes a year after "Maleficent", which for all is flaws did something intriguing with its fairy-tale origins, while Branagh and company just tell the story the way you remember it. Eventually, that's fine, as the important parts are presented with style; it just takes some effort to get there.
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