Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time there was a collection of wonderful tales, stories of magic and courage and beauty and true love. Generation after generation they delighted, enriched, and inspired all who read them. They had a timeless quality about them so that, no matter how many times you heard them, they were always magical.
Then one day a new generation came along. It thought itself much smarter, more sophisticated, and bolder than those that come before it. This generation demonstrated that supposition by ignoring everything the previous generations had ever taught and destroying or defacing everything they had passed down to it. When it found these wonderful tales, this wicked generation did its best to wreck them as well with sneers and scoffing. It insisted that they could only be told ironically, or defaced with grotesque and cruel alterations, so that everything good was made out to be wicked, and everything wicked was made out to be noble, and nothing of beauty or kindness was left. For this generation did not believe in beauty or magic or love.
So it went, year after year, these beautiful stories were only told in warped, ugly, and brutalized ways. And year after year they grew uglier and meaner and more grotesque.
But you can’t kill a story, however much you try. The real thing, the beautiful tales were always there, just waiting for someone to find one and tell it anew.
Then one day, someone did. And after so many years of broken, ugly tales, the beauty of that story smote the heart of he that heard it again.
Those stories are, of course, the fairy tales. The storyteller is Mr. Kenneth Branaugh. And that one particular story that was found and told again as it always was is Cinderella.
This is the film I hardly dared to hope for: as romantic, as beautiful, and as magical as it ought to be. I feel like C.S. Lewis after he had read Tolkien’s The Lay of Luthien: “I have drunken a long draft and quenched a long thirst.”
As we begin, little Ella (played as a young woman by Lilly James) lives a life of absolute bliss with her loving father and mother (Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell). Then tragedy strikes and her mother dies. Years later, her father re-marries the proud and haughty Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who is accompanied by her equally disagreeable daughters. Shortly thereafter, Ella’s father dies while away on business and the jealous Lady Tremaine begins to treat her as a servant. But Ella is never embittered and answers her cruelty with kindness. Her stepsisters nickname her ‘Cinderella’ for the ashes that collect on her face when she has to sleep next to the fire…
Well, I suppose I don’t need to go on, do I? You know the story. This is that story. That itself makes it a minor miracle; there are no revisions, no subversions, not the slightest hint of cynicism or contempt for the material. This is Mssr. Perrault’s classic tale definitively brought to the screen by a talented group of filmmakers. It is not subversive, but what science fiction author John C. Wright would call superversive: it builds up rather than tears down.
To start with the heroine herself, Miss James’ Cinderella is a wonderful character. She is not feminist, but feminine; kind, gentle, humble, demur, and with grace and beauty to spare, she faces the world neither with defiance nor weakness, but with a quiet courage that allows her to be in horrible circumstances without becoming of them. Even at her lowest and most desperate moments, Ella always is mindful of others and puts their needs before her own misery. And it is that, significantly, which is the real cause of all her triumphs. Yes, her Fairy Godmother helps, but Ella’s own goodness is what puts her in a position to benefit from that help, and time and time again her generosity and kindness prove to be her greatest weapons against the cruelty of the world.
In addition to her kindness and courage, Ella is humble: she dares to be grateful for what she has, even as it seems like her dreams are being stolen from right underneath her feet. This too plays directly into the film’s happy ending. In short, the movie consistently presents virtue as the key to happiness just like a fairy tale should!
Our prince (Richard Madden) is, even more amazingly, a worthy suitor for our Cinderella. Gallant, courteous, humble, and good-humored, he introduces himself to her during an unexpected encounter in the woods as “an apprentice still learning his trade.” Like Ella, the prince finds himself in trying situations, which he manages not with the angry defiance of a modern hero, but with tact and subtlety. His father, the King (Derek Jacobi) intends him to marry a princess so as to help secure their small kingdom with a valuable alliance, but the prince himself hopes to marry for love…specifically, for love of that bewitching girl he encountered in the forest. But the prince neither defies his father’s command nor resents him for it. Indeed, the King himself is a thoroughly sympathetic figure, and though we know that his desire for his son to marry a princess is misguided, we always understand why he is insisting upon it. And, like the prince himself, we don’t doubt that he can be persuaded to come around.
Though he is not defiant, the prince is not pliant either; he has the confidence and self-possession to stick to his guns to the end, and he maintains the balance of neither disobeying his father nor letting anything stand between him and his true love. I also liked that he was allowed to have a few scenes demonstrating his own strength and masculinity. A brief fencing match reminded me of a similar bit in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice: no better way to show off your gallant romantic hero than a little swordplay. In short, these are two people who we can see from the first absolutely could and should fall in love.
Cate Blanchett as the proverbial wicked stepmother gives probably the strongest performance in the film. Her Lady Tremaine is not only wicked, but believably so. We are given some insight into her character and motivations that, while they never come close to excusing her actions, at least let us understand why she does them, and even to feel a modicum of sympathy for her. But, as I said, this is no revisionist tale in which the villain is only misunderstood: Lady Tremaine is one wicked lady.
In some ways she represents the opposite of Cinderella and the prince: when she finds herself in a difficult situation, she responds with cruelty and selfishness in the hopes of getting her own way. She meets the world with pride and envy and cunning, and is fired to greater heights of villainy by the very kindness and goodness of her stepdaughter, who stands as both a constant rebuke and as a reminder of the sainted woman whom she could never measure up to. Basically, Lady Tremaine knows that for all her haughtiness, all her airs, and all her supposed sophistication, Cinderella has something that she doesn’t and she hates her for it.
Most of this nuance is due to Miss Blanchett’s simply superb performance in the role. She lets you see the envy and resentment that Lady Tremaine hides behind her mask of haughtiness. I also loved the thoughtful looks she gives Cinderella the morning after the ball as she, in spite of all magic and all reason, silently pieces together the truth. Even better are her last moments in the film, where she is felled, not by a rebuke, but by one more undeserved act of kindness.
Of course the last piece to the puzzle is the Fairy Godmother, played with delightful charm by the priceless Helena Bonham Carter, who as always simply melts into the role. Her Fairy Godmother is just as sweet and off-kilter as you could have hoped for, and her whimsically casual approach to magic earns a lot of laughs (the one objection to her – in fact, one of the only ones I have to the film at all – is that the movie gets the notion of what a fairy godmother is completely wrong: a fairy godmother is a fairy who is present at your christening, like in Sleeping Beauty. Here the film stipulates that “everyone has a fairy godmother,” which I think robs the figure of some of her mystique).
Speaking of which, the magic scenes (the only two major effects scenes in the film) are wonderful, but especially the scene where Cinderella gets her magical gown, which is nothing short of breathtaking. The camera gives a long, steady gaze as the dress flows and twirls about her, shimmering into being like the mist (several blue butterflies hover about her before becoming part of the pattern, which struck me as a perfect ‘fairy tale’ touch). Almost as stunning is Cinderella’s big entrance into the ballroom, descending the staircase and drawing every eye, both on and off screen.
This is a beautiful movie, from the charmingly elegant and homey interior of Ella’s house (before Lady Tremaine stripped it of most of its decorations) to the gorgeous palace and grounds, to the flowing fields and green forest of countryside. Elegant dresses and smart uniforms are everywhere we look (as well as a few that are comically unfortunate). Graceful dances, moonlight, flowers, and gilded carriages abound. Everywhere you look there is something new to delight the eye and strengthen the heart.
Knowing that the film would appeal to children, Mr. Branaugh dares to include shamelessly whimsical scenes involving Cinderella’s mice friends, who kind of but don’t really talk and who certainly are much more human than real mice, and who of course become the four white stallions who draw Cinderella’s coach. The film also includes the lizards who become the footmen and the goose who becomes the driver (incidentally, I don’t know if it was intended, but I could have sworn that one of the lizards in mid-transformation became a perfect CG version of Bill the Lizard from Alice In Wonderland and The Great Mouse Detective). There is also some slapstick included with Lucifer the cat. Personally, I loved this and thought it was a perfect fit for the film, giving it just the right dreamlike touch and, just as important, is exactly what you would expect from a fairy tale.
So, basically I loved this movie. I love, love, loved it! It’s a good, beautiful film about good, beautiful people who triumph over adversity and find true love through kindness and courage and a little magic. Watching this movie after all the revisionist trash of the past decade or so is like emerging from a stuffy, dark office into a brilliant summer’s day, or like coming home after being away so long you almost forgot what it looks like.
Final Rating: 5/5. The definitive film version of a classic story; a balm to the heart and a feast for the soul.
P.S. Cinderella was preceded by Frozen Fever; a short follow-up to Frozen. It’s basically five minutes of condensed fan service. I’m not a fan, as you know, but I found I actually didn’t mind it much. As a matter of fact, I rather liked it. The short actually gave us a chance to enjoy seeing the close sisterly relationship that was, alas, largely theoretical in the actual movie, and I admit I laughed at most of the jokes. It again makes me wish that Frozen hadn’t been such a mess, because these really are charming characters. Basically, it was a cute, condensed version of (mostly) the good parts of Frozen. It’s fluff, but largely inoffensive fluff.