Deep Focus: Cinderella
Long before she dons glass slippers, Cinderella proves she has no glass jaw in Kenneth Branagh’s captivating Cinderella. Chris Weitz’s spirited, literate script imbues a sparkling heroine with a sturdy moral compass, just as Weitz did when he wrote his Philip Pullman adaptation, The Golden Compass (07). Free of silly princess fantasies, this Cinderella (Lily James) stays true to a general code—“have courage and be kind”—and a specific mission: honoring her father and mother’s love despite the cruelty of her grasping, malicious stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, respectively), the woman’s two noxious offspring.
Without resorting to post-Wicked good-girl/bad-girl reversals in the manner of Maleficent and (dare I say it?) Frozen, Branagh and Weitz see the fairy tale afresh. Working from Charles Perrault’s 1697 version, which underpins most modern retellings, they set the tale in a storybook, pre-industrial 19th century, filled with pastoral and courtly charm. This Cinderella doesn’t pander to anyone or take anything for granted, including the stepmother’s unremitting sadism and the ingénue’s serenity, even after her stepparent reduces her to being a scullery maid. (Originally named just plain Ella, she becomes Cinder-ella after she falls asleep exhausted near a fireplace and her face gets smeared with soot.)
Unlike the 1950 cartoon, which starts after the death of Cinderella’s mother and barely limns her father, this movie swiftly and feelingly portrays Cinderella’s relationship with both biological parents. Her mom (Hayley Atwell) passes down her belief in courage and kindness and her faith that animals and humans, and humans and fairy godmothers, are indelibly bonded. When the heroine’s fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) creates a carriage from a pumpkin, then turns a goose into a coachman, mice into horses, and lizards into footmen, this crucial turning point releases all the magic, humor, and cathartic power at the story’s core. No other movie Cinderella matches it.
Cinderella’s dad (Ben Chaplin) insists that her mom is always present at the heart of their home. Cinderella realizes that he is there, too, after she loses him to illness. In this film, the source of the stepmother’s meanness and sadness is her jealousy of the dead woman, even after her husband has died. So when the stepmother tears Cinderella’s gown to pieces on the night of the prince’s ball, it’s fraught with emotion. They’re fighting over a mother’s legacy.
Cinderella is brought to tears, but she’s never defeated; barely a moment passes before she carries a bowl of milk to the old homeless woman who turns out to be her fairy grandmother. Being “belle of the ball” is not in this Cinderella’s vocabulary. She wants to cross paths with a handsome townsman named Kit (Richard Madden), whom she first stumbles across while galloping through the woods as he heads up a stag hunt. Little does she know that Kit, her kingdom’s Prince, has thrown the ball open to all his female constituents, not just native and foreign aristocrats, in hopes of seeing her once again.
Were it not for Branagh’s brio, this version of the story might have been merely briskly intelligent rather than enchanting (as was The Golden Compass, under Weitz’s own direction). This eclectic, unpredictable filmmaker is in peak form here. At the start he seems addicted to high spirits, but as in Much Ado About Nothing (93), there’s heart as well as hardiness in his work with the ensemble. Lily James is perfect casting for a smart, vivacious Cinderella. As she also shows on Downton Abbey playing Lady Rose, she knows how to convey delight without descending into dopiness. She matches up beautifully with Hayley Atwell as her ardent mother and conjures a more elusive connection with Ben Chaplin as her dad. They generate a wonderful calm when he quotes Shakespeare to her, or when she reads to him from Samuel Pepys’ diary (awfully racy reading, come to think of it, unless it’s an expurgated edition).
But the movie really ignites when Blanchett swoops into the picture as the stepmother. With hair turned a shimmering red, this performer has never been more strangely glamorous on screen than she is as this usually sexless and forbidding figure (her counterpart in the Disney cartoon resembles an evil grey-haired schoolmarm). It’s as if Branagh and Blanchett view her as a glammed-up criminal matron like Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious, or as the femme fatale of matriarchs. She’s devastatingly frank about devoting herself solely to the betterment of her biological daughters. Yet she’s also aware that they’re doltish and crude compared to herself or Cinderella. Out of panic and desperation she manufactures, or womanfactures, a spidery allure. She makes clear to Cinderella that she married a second time for security, only to have the replacement spouse expire on her. She now must use her wiles, rather than her daughters’ nonexistent appeal, to snag deep-pocketed suitors. The stepsisters are inevitably overdone, but it’s still fun to watch them tussling through the house just as their mother is telling Cinderella how swimmingly they get along—a scene Branagh shoots quite wittily, in a single shot. And Blanchett breathes a fervid sort of irony into this spiritually parched female. When she overhears how much her second husband loved his first wife, her stricken expressions pull you in because you don’t know what’s been wounded, some genuine pocket of affection or her inescapable, overpowering pride. Blanchett is so strong that she threatens to throw the movie off-balance. James must draw on her tremendous reserves of grace for Cinderella’s ardor and goodness to hold the screen against her charismatic stepmother’s wrongdoing.
Branagh, though, supplies James with stellar support on the side of the angels. Adorable dizziness is hard to pull off, but Helena Bonham Carter does it without strain as the fairy godmother. She, too, looks fabulous: she’d be super in an updated Clairol ad, declaring, “If I have one paranormal life to live, let me live it as a blonde.” Her unpredictable verbal rhythms are ideal for a good witch who appears to work on improvisatory instinct, bursting open a greenhouse with an expanding pumpkin, then using the shards and fittings as the accoutrements for a carriage. Bonham Carter plays off-kilter brilliantly, without the usual tics—as if you sense her twitching on the inside.
Just as important, Richard Madden plays the Prince (aka Kit) with an approachable, understated majesty. It’s crucial that the Prince be surprised and pleased by Cinderella’s directness, especially when she says, of hunting a stag: “Just because it’s what’s done doesn’t mean it’s what should be done.” Madden comes through with aplomb. Her challenge makes him prince up with a sensitive regality. Derek Jacobi is superbly understated as his father, a gentle, ailing King, light-years removed from the cartoon’s caricature of masculine boisterousness. Branagh and Weitz round out the royal characters with impeccably matched opposites: a sinister-suave Stellan Skarsgard, as the Machiavellian Grand Duke, and the redoubtable, big-hearted Nonso Anozie, as the Prince’s trusted Captain of the Guard. In this film, even the royal crier (Alex Macqueen) has a fetching, farcical hauteur.
Branagh stages and shoots Cinderella and Kit’s first meeting with finesse, the camera tracing semicircles around each of them as their horses circle each other. He and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (who also worked with him on Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) bring a romantic exuberance to Dante Ferretti’s royal sets, allowing us to exult in pomp and circumstance. Ferretti designs a magnificent ballroom for the couple’s dance, and in a rare failing, Branagh neglects to give us a complete shot of Cinderella descending the staircase from the prince’s point-of-view. Yet the dance itself, choreographed by Rob Ashford, is everything it should be. You feel the prince is lifting up this merchant’s daughter and gliding her along in a way that showcases her, not himself.
The film’s crystalline quality sometimes works against it, especially in one crucial, climactic passage. The fairy godmother casts a spell that keeps the stepmother and her daughters from recognizing Cinderella at the ball. But many partygoers do see her as she is, before she rushes away and loses a glass slipper. So it seems odd for the Captain and the Grand Duke to try the slipper on the foot of every female in the country, no matter how old or plain, in order to discover her identity. The humor of incongruity doesn’t entirely compensate for the storytelling clumsiness.
Branagh does bring off the most difficult setpiece with exhilarating bravura: Cinderella’s coach-and-four returning to its original state at the final stroke of midnight. As mouse ears sprout back on the “horses” and lizard tails emerge from the liveries of the “footmen,” it’s like a theme-park ride touched with the highest and best kind of children’s poetry—the kind that’s also fun and memorable for adults. Branagh’s production echoes Perrault’s rhymed morals. For Perrault, Cinderella’s key quality is charm: “Without it you’ve nothing; with it, all.” Sans her fairy benefactor, though, Cinderella’s talents would have gotten her nowhere: “They’ll never help you get ahead / Unless to spread your talents farther / You’ve a willing godmother, or godfather.”
On the whole, this movie’s message is more like the one Perrault put after a story called “The Fairies”: in the Neil Philip–Nicoletta Simborowski translation, “Diamonds and gold / Get us all stirred; / But there’s more true worth / In a kindly word.”