Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Starring Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett
Pretend I sound like your mother when I say: This is just a nice movie.
The story of Cinderella (James) is one that banks on the obvious cruelty that the stepmother (Blanchett) and stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) throw at our innocent heroine. Some of this cruelty is unsophisticated, like the name itself. Drisella is quite pleased with herself that she’s come up with the “cinder” in “Cinderella,” and it’s not long before the rest of the family picks up on it. Some of it is rather more clever. In the same scene, Ella’s stepmother questions why she has brought four plates to the breakfast table. Ella is confused, of course; she has been doing the cooking and cleaning as a way to compensate for the absence of the servants they used to have, and, to hear the narrator tell it, to help fill her mind as she grieves for her father (Ben Chaplin). What Lady Tremaine understands is that the performance of this particular job can be used to dump someone into it for good, without escape, and it is a highly sophisticated power move to send the newly christened Cinderella away to the kitchen to eat: that’s where the servants go, after all. Cinderella has a sense of how cruelty lands one-two punches. The first is the setup, a cheap blow which hurts our feelings. The second is the knockout blow, where it’s not just our feelings they’re after but our self-image. It’s no surprise that Branagh sends James to look at her reflection after the fact. On one level, she is dusty and dirty and covered in the ashes which have saddled her with the new name. On the other, she may be no more than a servant. Her angelic mother (Hayley Atwell) and kind father are gone for good. There is no family left for her, and perhaps she really is no more than an indentured servant as she looks at her distorted image in a copper pot. The fact that she becomes “Cinderella” is the strongest imprint of that unkindness; this is not, after all, called Ella Who Became a Princess Despite the Wicked Machinations of Her Horrible Adoptive Family.
There’s no such thing as a new Cinderella, but this interpretation, written by Chris Weitz (who I would not have guessed wrote this after hearing it!) tries its best. There’s backstory for Cinderella, leaning into the first name that was hidden in there all the time and which is discussed in some detail. There’s a meet-cute with the prince (Madden, trop charmant) in the forest before the two have their meeting at the ball. Derek Jacobi, who is contractually obligated to be in all of Branagh’s movies, is there for the prince to have his own relationship with parents; Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke who sprinkles realpolitik over the kingdom, which bears an otherwise suspicious resemblance to Arendelle. By and large the new stuff works, and it really has to for a movie like this. The 1950 version of the movie that this is borrowing from most is only seventy-five minutes long, and it buoys that number with songs and weird mouse stuff. There’s an extra half-hour in this movie, and that can be split pretty cleanly between Ella’s relationship with her rapidly disappearing parents and the behind-the-scenes intrigues at the palace. On the whole, the latter is more interesting because it provides more urgency to the story. Ella’s mother is very nice and very kind, and she teaches her “Lavender’s Blue,” which turns out to be rather important in the end. But Ella’s mom isn’t going to make it no matter how many ditties she teaches her daughter—this is old hat. Watching Stellan Skarsgard under some goofy hair try to swing a marriage of convenience between
the North and Dorne his kingdom and Zaragoza, which is pure shades of Henry VIII, gives a twist to the story. (I promise, it’s the only Game of Thrones joke I’m going to make. I am actively refraining from four or five others.) It’s not just the stepmother who wants to ensure this girl stays in the attic for the rest of her life like Rochester’s wife. There are geopolitical consequences to marrying a prince, and the movie doesn’t cheapen itself by noticing it. One plotter means mischief, but a second means conspiracy, and it’s simply more entertaining to watch this conspiracy unfold—and ultimately be blown up by Kit himself—than it is to watch Cinderella beat the odds and get discovered by the king’s men.
It’s also a joy to watch this particular group of actors act. There’s a delicate balancing act where we have Downton Abbey in Cinderella’s home (James and McShera), Game of Thrones in the palace (Madden and Nonso Anozie, playing the captain of the guard and the prince’s best friend), and bona fide prestige actors filling out the rest of the explicitly adult cast (Blanchett, Jacobi, Skarsgard, and Helena Bonham Carter, who appears to have been channeling Emma Thompson). The winner here, as usual, is Blanchett. The costumes help her out here. Where everyone else appears to have come from somewhere in the 19th Century, military uniforms and hoop skirts alike, Blanchett’s dresses are typically more form-fitting and more aggressively colored. She’s living in the early stages of the 20th Century while her peers are basically Victorian; she looks great, but from the drop she is obviously different from the rest of the cast. Lady Tremaine is not particularly cartoonish in the animated version, and that’s much the same in this film as well. Anastasia and Drisella are doing it 100 the whole way through, which seems fitting for two girls who have no filter nor a concept of one. Her daughters, as she admits to Cinderella near the end, are regrettably stupid. But like the Grand Duke, whose feet are firmly on the ground, Lady Tremaine understands politics. A woman alone, as she has been alone twice now, is profoundly vulnerable. Marrying herself off has failed twice; marrying off a daughter to a prince is her solution, once and for all, after a series of half-measures have gone under. It’s a frank conversation, maybe the most direct conversation one could hope for in fairy tales. Blanchett’s flinty performance, which she ratchets up to something just beneath warm when she wants something, gives the movie something to pivot on. Her practicality is ruthlessness, and in comparison, how “good” Cinderella is feels like a slap in her face. Blanchett is deeply convincing, even if we do not care even a little for the woman she’s playing.
On the other hand, Lily James plays sweetness and light again, which by now is her primary mode and which is awfully effective on her. Once again, Sandy Powell’s costumes are tremendous for making the character stand out. The blue dress that Cinderella wears to the ball in 1950 is iconic. The one that she wears to the ball in 2015 is far more beautiful, much closer to the ethereal character of the costume itself which signifies an inner beauty even when the physical realities of her situation are ugly. At home, even before her station collapses, Ella wears a simple blue dress which stands out against the crowded costumes of her stepsisters, which of course is far more flattering. It is so difficult as a flesh-and-blood actor to be as squeaky clean and goody-good as a cartoon character without making us want to punch her. James manages to thread that needle; we can believe in her as this gentle, patient, forbearing individual without ever feeling inclined to scream at her for being so perfect. The most pleasant surprise for me in the picture is Richard Madden, who is as charming as the character he’s supposed to be. We knew already that he was handsome—woof, is he ever—but he looks pretty good without the Robb Stark scruff too. He’s also carrying with him the remainder of the nobility he carried around when he was Robb; it’s not hard to believe the “I can definitely wait to be king” vibe he’s working with. In his own way he is as genuine and kind as Ella, and that makes him similarly lovable. The casting here is remarkable; when they end up together, it’s always a triumph.