Into our increasingly fractured fairy tale world, where villains become heroes and princesses are archers, arrives the modestly old-fashioned, live-action Cinderella. I tend to like my fairy tales revisionist these days (last year’s Maleficent was on my top ten list), but even I found this Cinderella, with its eager, genteel spirit, hard to resist. So I didn’t resist it.
Handsomely done and uncommonly good-natured, Cinderella is almost dangerous in the way it makes the conventional narrative trajectory – damsel in distress rescued by handsome prince – seem harmless. Yet without turning the tale on its head (as Maleficent wonderfully did), Cinderella gently tweaks the more objectionable details of these fairy tales while still retaining their traditionalist structure. It’s a nice compromise.
Cinderella is played by Lily James, without whom I doubt much of this would work. Guileless without being naïve, soft-hearted without being sentimental, her Cinderella is undoubtedly feminine yet none the weaker for it (especially in her feisty, flirty scenes opposite the prince, played by Richard Madden). Here and in a supporting part on BBC’s Downton Abbey, James has an eager smile and essential earnestness that casts a charm on whatever room she’s in.
Squaring off against her is Cate Blanchett as Cinderella’s stepmother, a domineering figure whose evil elegance is occasionally betrayed by a deep, throaty laugh. There’s something sinister about the way Blanchett’s performance (and Chris Weitz’s screenplay) gently guide Cinderella from the role of stepdaughter to servant, as if this was the natural course of things once her father dies. Without much to-do, she goes from picking up something her stepmother had dropped, simply as an act of kindness, to being a live-in maid who waits on her stepmother and sneering stepsisters.
Blanchett turns Cinderella into something of a fashion runway, so spectacularly does she model her series of elaborate gowns.
Blanchett, a perennial standout on the Oscar red carpet, turns Cinderella into something of a fashion runway, so spectacularly does she model her series of elaborate gowns. Many of them incorporate green and all have an animalistic air, comprised as they are from sequins that resemble reptilian scales, hats that recall cockatoos and satin that shimmers like a jewel beetle’s shell. The best description of Blanchett’s stepmother comes from the witty storybook narration of Weitz’s screenplay: “She too knew grief, but she wore it wonderfully well.”
Not that costume designer Sandy Powell skimps on Cinderella’s outfits. The movie’s version of the iconic ball gown features a spreading skirt that doesn’t flounce as much as it pulsates, like a living thing. Colored with an array of blues, it seems to move of its own accord, like the sea.
Dressed as they are and giving such grand performances, Blanchett and James are easily the twin focal points. But credit should also be given to the likes of Derek Jacobi, as the king, and Stellan Skarsgard, as the conniving grand duke, who provide the perfunctory palace court scenes with more gravitas than they probably deserve. Even Helena Bonham Carter, as the fairy godmother, manages to keep her theatricality somewhat in check for her brief cameo.
Perhaps this is a result of working with an actor’s director like Kenneth Branagh, who also manages to bring a nice sense of scope to the picture with sweeping establishing shots of the forest around Cinderella’s home and the sprawling palace grounds. That and the sumptuous production design by Dante Ferretti make us feel as if this fantastic tale is actually taking place within a real kingdom.
It’s a familiar kingdom, to be sure. In the grand tradition of fairy tales, from the vicious versions of the Brothers Grimm to Disney’s family-friendly animations to the re-imaginings we’ve had of late, this Cinderella doesn’t break much new ground. Yet something lovely grows from it nonetheless.