Thursday, March 26, 2015
CINDERELLA (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)
Kenneth Branagh’s CINDERELLA is a mostly faithful live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1950 animated story of the girl who rises from the ashes to become a princess. Ella (Lily James) is a charming young woman who abides by her deceased mother’s gentle insistence always to have courage and be kind. When her father (Ben Chaplin) eventually remarries, Ella cheerfully accepts her new stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and bratty stepsisters Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). After he dies while away on business, these family members take even greater advantage of her, but she continues to accommodate them while guided by her mother’s words. Her face is often sullied with ashes from needing to sleep by the hearth to keep warm. Stepmother and stepsisters seize on this and dub her Cinderella.
One day while needing an escape from the cruelty she endures, Ella goes to the forest where she meets the prince (Richard Madden). He is enchanted with her but doesn’t get her name. He’s being pressured to make a politically wise marriage but prefers this simple country girl to the elite and powerful invited to his imminent royal ball. To find her again he wins a concession to invite all maidens to attend in the hope that Ella will come. Although her stepmother forbids her to go, Ella’s fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) provides some last minute solutions.
Branagh finds use for some CGI transformations in his version of CINDERELLA, but otherwise he stays true to a solid, old-fashioned vision of this well-known fairy tale. Contemporary interpretations or subversions of the source material are not welcome here, and that is perfectly fine. In fact, the most modern touches, like the morphing of the coach and footmen, look anomalous among the quaint and opulent backdrops.
Branagh made his name in film with Shakespearean adaptations rooted in their period settings. In CINDERELLA he’s particularly adept at staging scenes of castle intrigue in Chris Weitz’s screenplay. With the prince’s father ill and desiring a secure transition of power, the romantic aspect of the royal ball is tested by prudence and strategy. Branagh seems most in his element navigating the negotiations amid the hustle and bustle of the biggest and most important event in all of the land.
The elimination of the songs in this lavish remake represent the most notable deviation from the cartoon. Considering the overwhelming familiarity with the story and the massive success of FROZEN, it’s a curious change not to have this CINDERELLA be a musical. Ella is unerringly true to the principles she was raised to honor. While Ella doesn’t have much agency in her story, James never plays her as though she’s a pushover. It’s also nice to see a protagonist who, when given the opportunity to deliver a comeuppance to her oppressors, chooses to forgive. There’s not a lot of magic in the events of CINDERELLA, but it certainly exists in this touch of grace.