Let’s be honest, although Disney’s 1950 animated feature Cinderella is considered a ‘classic’ by today’s standards, there isn’t much about the characters or story that modern audiences would celebrate. Cinderella is a feckless dreamer who sings through her sorrows until she gets a lucky reprieve one night and in twist of fate meets a handsome prince who whisks her away from her sordid life. Not really the kind of life lesson most would want to instill in their post-Frozen Anna & Elsa loving children. So the challenge of adapting this very dated fairytale required some clever crafting and repositioning of largely archaic tropes.
Thankfully, Kenneth Branagh, wielding a script by Chris Weitz, brings his wealth of experience developing nuanced Shakespearean characters to this Cinderella. His live-action retelling remains surprisingly faithful to the original story and tone, but injects just enough character development that the cast feels fresh and interesting while remaining reminiscent of their 2D counterparts.
The film begins with a considerable amount of backstory for Ella (Lily James) whose idyllic life with her mother and father provide great contrast to the one she is soon fated. Just before her birth mother dies, Ella is left with the parting sentiment to “Have Courage and Be Kind,” a life motto of sorts which guides her and reminds her to be sympathetic to the hardships and circumstances of those around her.
As the story goes, her father remarries the ever-so-callous Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) who arrives with two silly daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) and a devilish cat. When Ella’s father passes away, gone with him are the families finances and soon Ella is thrust into a role of servitude. She takes it in stride, with only brief lapses in recognizing her horrible plight. One such moment is when her terrible stepsisters give her the nickname “Cinderella” after appearing for supper covered in fireplace soot. Clever. Ella runs off into the woods along with her feelings where she happens to cross paths with a handsome prince (Richard Madden). With a newfound glimmer of hope, Cinderella returns home and fashions a dress for herself so that she may go to the ball, only to have that dream -literally- torn away from her.
At this point in the story, the arrival of the Fairy Godmother (Helena Boneham Carter) comes as a very welcomed relief, and a key notion in making this film work. Branagh manages to subtly build enough despair that when Cinderella finally gets her stunning new dress for the ball (courtesy of Sandy Powell) its a genuine moment of triumph. Cinderella is well equipped with enough will and determination for the remainder of the film that when she gets her prince and happy ending, it feels deserved instead of simply granted by the flick of a wand.
With brilliant performance from the entire cast, each with their own set of problems and obstacles, the film has depth and feels full of real people. Cate Blanchett is particularly stunning as Lady Tremaine who is no longer just an insular and cold-hearted woman, but a remorseless survivor with a flair for the dramatic. In addition, Lily James in the title roles seems as though she’s been perfectly plucked out of the pages of a fairytale with her endearing beauty, innocence, and grace. In the end, this Cinderella will undoubtedly reignite the magical feeling that Walt Disney conjured so many years ago with Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo!