Given director Kenneth Branagh’s tendency towards theatrical exaggeration in his film adaptations—as well as the success of historically-based work of Henry V and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—it is easy to see why Disney hired him to direct its live action remake of the famous 1950 animated feature.
Branagh not only gives Cinderella a much-needed modern facelift, he takes advantage of Disney’s unending resources for the costume production. Design is anything but lacking, from Cinderella’s country home to the ornamental dresses at the ball in the Prince’s palace. The decision to give the reigns to Branagh has paid off. Cinderella has has grossed over $130 million dollars worldwide in its first weekend.
In Branagh’s attempt to keep the fairytale as European as possible, Downton Abbey’s Lily James and Game of Throne’s Robb Madden take over the roles of Cinderella and Prince Charming. The current version tells the complete story of the titular Cinderella from the picturesque arcadia of her youth to near adulthood. Her mother (Hayley Atwell from Marvel’s Cinematic Universe) dotes on her continuously while her father (Ben Chaplin) supports their aristocratic lifestyle, a near perfect existence. Her mother teaches her to believe in the permanence of magic. This attitude allows her to live authentically and make friends with the mice in the fields. Tragically, her mother falls ill and before passing away, tells Cinderella that she needs to practice kindness and courage, which is a theme that is sadly beaten into every inch of the story.
She and her father continue to live happily, but he quickly finds the love of his life. He marries the recently widowed Lady Tremaine played by Cate Blanchett, an ideal casting. Not only does she exemplify the elegant beauty needed to seduce any man or widower, but can also possess the cold soul-piercing look that any evil stepmother should embody. Cinderella tries to impress her new stepmother and stepsisters upon their first arrival to the house, but she is quickly discouraged when they show no affection to her.
Branagh added a more humanistic quality to the story, showing causality in the development of the relationship between Madame Tremaine and Cinderella. In the 1950s, it would have been easier to accept the fairytale at face value and not question the foundation for Madame Tremaine’s jealousy. Could today’s audience be satisfied with the thirty-second prologue of the original animated feature that the stepmother immediately turned evil after the father’s death and was simply jealous of Cinderella’s beauty? Branagh offers an intimate look into the relationship between Cinderella, her father, and her stepmother. Brought to her limits with the stepmother, Cinderella confides in her father that she dearly misses her mother. Ella’s father consoles her by acknowledging his own love for his deceased wife and that she will always be a part of the house they reside in. Madame Tremaine overhears her new husband’s sympathies and undoubtedly is filled with a melange of emotions: hurt, betrayal, sadness jealousy, etc. The transgressions Madame Tremaine commits against Cinderella are a much more compelling form of human evil than the animated story presents.
Despite the successful reworking of the tale, the film fails in two critical regards. Continuing with the British motif, Helena Bonham Carter makes a very quick appearance as Cinderella’s fairy godmother. One would have thought that Branagh’s widely publicized affair with Bonham Carter in the 1990s should have put an end to their professional relationship. It should have (sleeping with the director really does help in show business.) Bonham Carter is an awkward fit for the role and does not add that personal touch of sweetness that Cinderella in despair needs (a personal fantasy would have seen Betty White in the role). Lastly, the editing of the film was off. Even though the story is a relatively short one, the pacing of the film was frenetic and rushed during various scenes. An extra five to ten minutes of footage would have done wonders.
Still, the film is in many regard a complex and engaging re-working of an outdated tale. Fairy tales, unlike other narratives, are meant to be told over and over again, and in this case, Branagh does Cinderella’s tale justice.
Featured Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios