Shakespeare and opera actor/director Ken Branagh continues his mainstream success (Thor, Jack Ryan) with this lavish live-action spectacular lifted from the Disney and Charles Perrault fairytales.
It’s an entirely conventional re-telling of an orphaned girl and her chance meeting with a mystery prince named Kit in a fairy-tale Ruritanian kingdom; of vast fairy-tale palaces and huge fairy-tale balls, with fairy-tale pumpkin coaches and glass slippers. Cinderella does exactly what it says on the label.
Elsewhere Branagh stalwarts Derek Jacobi (Effie Gray, Ironclad, My week with Marilyn) is the steely monarch, while Helena Bonham Carter (Potter, Alice) seems base her unhinged fairy godmother as Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, with added Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo (yes, really).
Also in the cast, Stellan Skarsgard (Avengers, Pirates) is coldly calculating as the scheming Chancellor. The ‘ugly sisters’ are morally rather than physicially repugnant; selfish, bickering, polka-dot nightmares enlivened by Holliday Grainger (Bel Ami, The Borgias) and Sophie McShera (Downton). Stylishly chilling is Kate Blanchett’s step-mother (The Aviator, The Hobbit) reworking her Wicked Witch villain from Hanna as a femme fatale from a 1940’s Hollywood epic. Always a class act, Blanchett in particular reveals the flaws in this Cinderella.
The trouble is, RSC old-stager Branagh is far too concerned with everyone’s ‘motivation’ (“what’s my motivation, darling?”), with everyone from the Prince to the Lizard footman given more than a fair-handed chance to lay out their inner life. Which would be marvellous in a domestic drama, but here it clashes with the panto material. Branagh simply refuses to have any heroes or villains, so even Blanchett gets to sit on the staircase and justify her evil deeds in terms of thwarted ambition, social status and the need to marry off two stupid daughters to advantage. Sorry, Ken, we just don’t need to feel sympathy for these ghastly people; it’s not in the canon, it’s not in the style of the piece and it drags the pace.
Oddly it is Lily James who suffers most, fighting to keep the saintly Ella more than the sum of her many virtues, not helped by her empathetic relationship with the entire animal kingdom. Somehow she avoids cloying saintliness, despite having little to do but stoically endure hardship, mainly through strength of personality and an unwavering moral compass. Although her tendency to forgive anyone for anything gets a bit much.
I have a soft spot for the often derided Ever After, Drew Barrymore and Angelica Huston’s properly grungy and knowingly ironic Medieval Cinders. Then again Branagh’s Cinderella so much better than the utterly dismal horror of the Julia Roberts’ Mirror, Mirror – so bad, we completely ignored it here.
There are some thrilling set-pieces, from the transformation of pumpkins to coaches, mice to horses, a goose and a lizard to coachmen and Ella’s rags to a fairytale ball gown. The stunning ballroom sequence sees the cast transformed into living cartoons, in a way you never expected to see live-action rendered.
Of course it all involves buckets of CGI to make it all glitter and sparkle and the fairytale kingdom is never quite as solid as, say, Snow White and the Huntsman, but Branagh is making a movie that is shamelessly sentimental, feel-good, child-friendly fun. It has a whimsical, innocent sense of humour, and is completely lacking any post-Enchanted self-awareness, post-Frozen sassiness, or any of the darkness of Malificent.
If it weren’t already so straight, the outstanding cinematography, costumes and score would drive it in an unbending line back to Disney.
Huge fun and entertaining for all the family, we could all do worse than live by Ella’s mantra, “have courage and be kind.” See it and “be excellent to each other.” Hm, that’s another movie. RC
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Aline Brosh McKenna, Chris Weitz
Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Romance
Running time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Anozie Nonso, Ben Chaplin, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Jana Perez, Alex MacQueen, Tom Edden, Gareth Mason
Related: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader