Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) probably won’t be the interpretation of the beloved fairy tale to end all interpretations, but for all intents and purposes it might certainly well be. Intentionally honoring the Disney animated classic as well as the original story, this Cinderella is obviously safe, but it does the unthinkable: it breathes life into an old dream.
Television movies, TV shows, teen star comedies with modern twists and musicals have been rehasing the story of Cinderella tirelessly in moving images. Disney, with Cinderella as one of its prime properties, however had no reseverations that audiences were ready for a big take. They were right, proving that the story of a wronged maiden turned princess is not only ageless, but never seizes to inspire. In that respect Branagh, and writer Chris Weitz, served up a surprisingly charming movie within the confines of Disney’s legacy to fit exactly that purpose.
Cinderella (2015) still takes place in a medieval fairy tale society, with cheerful commoners, wicked stepsisters and magic animals, but the right subtlety is applied to transfer the conservative tale into the 21st century. True, no big risks were taken in this telling, which largely leaves the 1950s movie story in tact, playing into what audiences already love rather than what would surprise them. But the movie shows off some wit and depth, which is all anyone can really ask for when revisiting a tale which has seen so many variations.
The movie starts off with Cinderella’s parents both still alive, framing the happy childhood that instigates her patience and good heart throughout the rest of the story. “Be kind and have courage”, Ella’s dying mother tells her. It’s this simple message, which is repeated often, that is what works here. At the risk of being corny and too sweet, Cinderella is dead set on bringing back some magic into the increasingly savvy and sober movie world. Instead of just a girl who obediently works chores, we get a girl who finds strength in doing the right thing. It’s never easy to be good is a message so embedded in the nature of heroism, its meaning often gives way for deeper, grimmer metaphors. Yet, this is what truly trials any hero. Doing things for awful people because the only thing more awful would be to let them change you. This high moral is allowed to exist here by comedy undercutting any potentially sappy moment. Its simplicity is what gives this interpretation its true merit.
The casting certainly doesn’t hurt. Cate Blanchett comes alive in Lady Tremaine, balancing comedy and stealth with admirable ease. A diversion from the legitimately scary animated source, Lady Tremaine is given some interesting perspective. Nothing drastic like Maleficent, but there are beats where she is rounded out. Especially the “why” moment is perfect. The same goes for the Prince, who was as flat as the paper he was drawn on in the original Disney. Now, with a lot of help from Robert Maddens dashing smile, the leading man is not only legitimately charming, he’s vulnurable, passionate and actually a rootable human who deserves the heroine. There’s a particularly moving scene, where Madden shows off more of that Robb Stark emotion, that serves both the character and the movie. Likewise, Lily James is a brilliant choice for the lead maiden, playing the well known princess-to-be with certainty and strength, rather than vulnirability and purity. Only Helen Boham Carter is not given enough to do. Perhaps expectations run high for this quirky and always loveable actress, but this fairy godmother is only half of what great fun she could have been (the milk drinking seems to set-up an alcohol-joke that never pays off).
The true advances made in the story aren’t found in the characters, though. They’re found in the added emotional layer of parental deaths, self-awareness in the humor and restraint in example not spending too much time with the animals. The extra running time seemed unnecessary given that the original animated movie suffers from exactly those animals, but it is used here to flesh out the parts of the story that don’t necessarily need it, but deserve it nonetheless. Add impressive costumes and sets and everything works so well on a small, charming scale that the big CGI shots of mountain views and huge crowds distract rather than impress.
Anyone hoping for a splashing new feminist take on the classic story, or even some of that Into the Woods anxiety, are in for a bittersweet surprise. Cinderella (2015) is unapologetically more of the same, but it’s also actually earnest in making the well known victim more active and admirable, while ditching any notion that this story was centered around female beauty. This time the two main characters are genuinely appealing characters with the heart and charm that was always suggested but never delivered. Cinderella got the movie treatment she always deserved. Until the next one comes along, of course.