Why do Fairy Tales endure? Mainly because there is a kernel of truth along with a healthy helping of wish fulfillment that sparks the imagination for generation after generation. But the problem with retelling these stories is that they become watered down and cliche. Or, worse, begin to suggest something other than their original intent. Cinderella, as the Grimms captured it, is a very dark and nasty tale. But is has been Disney’s 1950 classic that has been in the zeitgeist since its release. That version is a lot lighter and much more damaging to young girls. It is only recently that the public has been intrigued with these stories from a new angle.
In the mid-80’s, it was Into the Woods (the original musical) that helped revitalize the thinking around the approach to fairy tales and made approaches like this possible. It reminded a large audience that these stories were about people. There were other concurrent and earlier attempts, but none managed to reach a global audience or remain as solidly in cultural memory.
Weitz’s (About a Boy) script for this version of Cinderella splits the difference between Grimm and Disney by humanizing all those involved and giving them real motivations, or at least trying to. And Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) directed the result with a sure hand and an honest eye. He pays homage to the Disney classic in our heads, but drags it more into the light. I also have to give Branagh a shout-out for his very apropos and subtle nod to Fragonod’s The Swing, which may be becoming a standard Disney Easter Egg for directors (Frozen also references the famous piece).
Despite the title, Cate Blanchett (How to Train Your Dragon 2) walks away with this film as the step-mother. Her costumes and attitude are both sharp as her wit. This is a woman not to be trifled with and she is a woman driven by real need. She slowly perverts her relationship with Lily James’ (Downton Abbey) Ella with slick guile. It isn’t always quite believable on her side, but James helps her sell the weaker parts of the action.
Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), opposite James, manages to be both regal and real, thanks to some light touches in the script and his direction. The two make a believable and sweet couple you want to root for from the moment they meet. Essential in this tale.
Helena Bonham Carter (The Worricker Trilogy) got to trot out her signature weird, but in a wonderfully new way as the Fairy Godmother. She wasn’t even recognizable dressed, ostensibly, as Glinda, with a screw or two loose. She played it just right, with both support and a slight disconnect to the world. Her character sweeps in and then vanishes, a guiding hand that is clearly watching but rarely interferes. It is her voice we hear as narrator throughout the film, reinforcing this distant, ever-present care.
Other folks that stood out were Alex Macqueen, who had fun as the Crier, and Stellan Skarsgård (Nymphomaniac) as the conniving Grand Duke. In one of the smallest roles, as Ella’s mother, Hayley Atwell (Falcón, Captain America) was a nice surprise. It was a different character from her Agent Carter efforts, but with as much strength and beauty. Likewise, Ben Chaplin (Twixt), as Ella’s father goes through believable changes to set everything in motion.
I didn’t want to like this film. I fully expected to dislike it and its message. I really only gave it a shot due to Branagh and Blanchett. Honestly, I’m glad I did, for both its story and its design. It is entertaining and luscious (I expect to see it up for costume and design Oscars), and a good way to spend an evening with either your kids or someone you love.