The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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A Fairy Tale Come to Life

 105 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Lily James, Richard Madden

No one hates movie remakes as much as I do, but I’d like to point out a simple, but often overlooked, fact. A movie has to actually be made before it can be remade. The campy 60’s monstrosity entitled Casino Royale was not a James Bond movie as we know it, so the 21st century take on the material was actually its first big screen treatment. Similarly, although the all-too-familiar story of Cinderella has been re-imagined and reworked ad infinitum over the years, no one has made a faithful, live action version of the material. Until now, that is, with the stunning debut of Disney’s surefire children’s classic-to-be.


Cinderella is such a familiar story, and its central theme resonates so strongly with girls of all ages, that moviemakers over the years have simultaneously shamelessly plundered the public domain source material while, at the same time, trying to put some type of spin on it to distance themselves from the actual fairy tale. The results are often a winking semi-putdown of the fairy tale, as if the filmmakers are saying, “You know and we know this is hokey but let’s play around with it and have some fun.”


It’s not surprising that Disney, which owns the rights to the best known version of the material, its 1950 animated classic, would take a shot at a live action Cinderella. Walt himself had a soft spot for the fairy tale, and the studio has had a great deal of success with its recent live action films, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. But neither of those two movies were retellings of the original story. Fortunately, before we wound up seeing Cinderella go postal on her wicked stepfamily, someone took a close look at the possibilities inherent in the original story.


Director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have approached the adaptation of Cinderella as if they were adapting a 2014 best seller, not a centuries old children’s story. They treat the source material with a faithfulness bordering on reverence. For the most part, they use the Charles Perrault version of the tale (which introduced the glass slipper, the pumpkin, and the fairy godmother into the mix), but they also incorporate some proprietary elements from the earlier Disney animated version. They have, however, made some subtle changes to make the characters’ motivations more credible.


So, Cinderella (Lily James) is eternally kind and optimistic, not because she’s a sap, but because she’s applying the lessons taught her by her late mother. Similarly, her stepmother (Cate Blanchett), Madame Tremaine, isn’t gratuitously cruel, as are her imbecilic daughters, but a woman who’s always rather cold bloodedly figuring out what’s best for the family’s future. She’s by no means likable, but she is somewhat pitiable and completely understandable.


The biggest change from the traditional storyline occurs after the ball. Madame Tremaine soon figures out exactly who the Prince’s (Richard Madden) mysterious belle of the ball is, but she conspires with the Prince’s advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard) to keep Cinderella out of the way during the hunt for the right foot to fit the glass slipper. By doing so, Tremaine will get a payoff, and the Prince, who’s now the King, since his father (Derek Jacobi) died shortly after the ball, can marry suitable royalty from another kingdom and form a needed alliance.


Kenneth Branagh knows something about both lavish costume epics and remaining faithful to source material. His Hamlet is the only modern film version to include Shakespeare’s entire play and received Oscar nominations for costume and production design. Not surprisingly, in his hands, Cinderella assumes epic proportions as well. But because viewers know they’re seeing a fairy tale, they willingly accept the lavish palace, the amazingly choreographed ball, and even Cinderella’s own home, which approaches Downton Abbey (where star James has spent the last few television seasons) in grandeur.


And, just as Branagh knew how to subtly tweak his staging of Hamlet, bringing it forward a few hundred years, he also makes subtle changes to Cinderella. Everyone will notice that Madame Tremaine’s outfits are more 1940’s Hollywood chic than formal wear from an earlier century. Yet, somehow, she blends right in with the spectacle. In large part, that’s due to the fact that her outfits suggest Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, and Blanchett plays her character as a cross between the two. She comes close to campiness but avoids it, and her evil is so cold bloodedly delicious that she could easily snag a Best Supporting Actress nomination next year.


Branagh’s most significant accomplishment in the movie may well be showing some self-restraint. By adopting a nearly reverential attitude towards the original, he avoids the temptations of overladen special effects, campiness, and too much cutesiness. In each case he skillfully walks a fine line. The magical transformations of household animals and vegetables into Cinderella’s ride for the ball are still there and are effective, especially the gradual wearing off of the spell, an effect similar to seeing a werewolf transformation. But the effects are limited to two fairly brief scenes. The computer-animated mice show up more frequently and have a key part to play in the movie’s climax, but they aren’t Cinderella’s constant comic confidantes. And, unlike her usual screen persona in Tim Burton and Harry Potter movies, Helena Bonham Carter manages to be eccentric without becoming a total joke.


What Cinderella does far better than most of its predecessors over the years is portray its central romance. James and Madden have great chemistry together and the screenplay wisely allows them to meet, and fall in love, before the ball, when the Prince is on a hunt in the woods near Cinderella’s home. Even though there’s absolutely no suspense involved about whether the two will be together at the end of the movie, Branagh creates a rooting interest for the audience in seeing the happy ending.


Cinderella will probably win Oscars next year for Sandy Powell’s costumes and Dante Ferratti’s production design and may pick up a couple of more nominations along the way. But, in the long run, it’s going to be best remembered as something Disney hasn’t had in a long time: a true live-action classic that audiences can pass on from mother to daughter for future generations.

Read other reviews of Cinderella:


Cinderella (2015) on IMDb