Dir: Kenneth Branagh
When remaking, retelling, or even revisiting an beloved story, you run the risk of spoiling what made it loved in the first place, taking on dear childhood memories. It’s a high risk, high reward, strategy, and for me this came out of it well.
A live-action retelling of the classic fairytale in which a young woman (Lily James) is mistreated by her step-mother (Cate Blanchett) and forced to work as a servant, until her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) ensures that she can go to the royal ball at which the prince (Richard Madden) will choose a bride.
I was impressed at how nicely this takes many of the elements from the animated classic, including greedy mouse Gus Gus (still better in the animation but lovely to see him in some form) and incorporates these while also building on them. Though there are certain changes to help convey the added depth, it take the original as a framework and builds respectfully upon it. The two feel in tune with each other not just in certain design elements but in even more so in character and story. It puts much more flesh on the bones of the original, for example taking time to show Ella’s descent into servitude and becoming ‘Cinderella’. It also develops the other main characters and deepens their motivations and personalities, both good and bad.
In that respect the Script is very clever in places, and very precise in dialogue and wording to make clear that Ella is a strong independent woman, and prince Kit is a good man who respects her and wants to marry her for the right reasons. However the step-family are gold-diggers with telling phrases such as ‘snare the prince’. What helps elevate the story and script is some really superb casting and performances that seemed to me to be aimed exactly at the right tone, never going to pantomime levels, though slightly exaggerated. Cate Blanchett is a brilliant step-mother who avoids being too overtly ‘evil’ early on, duplicitous certainly, conniving absolutely, but not ‘evil’. I really felt she was giving her best, though the film isn’t on the same level of prestige as others she may have been qorking on before and after it, there was no point at which I worried she was holding back any skills.
I feel confident in saying the same for all the other actors and actresses too. Lily James is perfectly cast as Cinderella, and though there was some controversy about her petite waist, it was her slightly darker eyebrows that distracted me at first, though I soon forgot about them and started just enjoying her performance. Credit should also go to Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera who are brilliantly loathsome step-sisters. Also of note is Richard Madden whose role as the prince is nicely brought up to date, with which he conveys true affection both for the girl he longs to be with and even more touchingly his ailing father played by Derek Jacobi. The only performance I didn’t like was Rob Brydon as a painter who tries far too hard to be laugh-out-loud funny when the rest of the film steers in another direction, it’s like he’s totally misread the tone when everyone else has grasped it perfectly.
Though the tragic elements of the story and the way the film really develops the themes of loss and grief, it manages to avoid becoming too dark or dismal. There’s a particularly bright opening, it has an upbeat and really lovely feel especially as a way to start. This distinguished the film immediately from darker adaptations and the narration by Helena Bonham Carter, which is a risky technique to use, was upbeat and not overly repeating what we could take from watching.
Gorgeous costumes abound in this film, most prominently with the contrast between the gaudy step-sisters but Ella looking lovely in pastel shades. It’s this costume design that has been praised and garnered award nominations this year. I’m no follower of fashion but I can tell when dresses are well-designed, especially if they work for the film and the characters wearing them. That’s what most impressed me, that the distinction was so clear between Cinderella and her step sisters and step-mother, their clothes reinforced everything else about them yet avoided looking like ‘costumes’, merely a reflection of their tastes and personalities.
Not all the CGI worked for me, certain moments just looked too obviously computerised which detracted from the otherwise beautiful physical sets and costume design. The Fairy Godmother is shown at first looking old and this is so clearly done in a computer, though I can’t see why that couldn’t have been achieved through skilled make-up artistry. It’s sometimes not too noticeable, however when there’s so much, in the ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’ sequence especially, it starts to stand out and spoil the overall effect of the scenes.
Things turn very lavish in the second half, especially when Cinderella gets to the least wheelchair-accessible palace ever, which all looked just as grand as it should. Sir Ken is getting good at doing fantasy, as ‘Thor’ really crossed over into that realm too. He’s a good director, and with a couple of solid hits in his portfolio I wonder if he’ll make occupying the director’s chair a more regular endeavour? Disney seem confident putting this in his hands and it made more than five times the costs back, so reinforced both Sir Ken’s credentials and the strength of this sub-genre.
This is my favourite of the Disney live-action retellings so far. I enjoyed the generally light and upbeat tone and felt that the changes were almost all to the benefit of conveying the unplumbed depths of the story. I hope that Disney continue to get the tone right if they are going to keep doing these, and with a second ‘Alice’ adaptation, ‘The Jungle Book’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ coming soon, as well as having announced another half a dozen live-action retellings of their classic tales, it looks like they will.
For now, Cinderella, you shall go to the Oscars and you may even have a chance at winning, nominated for the ‘Best Costume Design’ as it also has been at the BAFTAs.