When I first heard that Disney was doing a live-action film based on the old Cinderella animated feature, I had the same reaction I’m sure a lot of you did: Why? The 1950 film was a classic in its day, Golden Age Disney at its best. But we’ve outgrown that time and culture. I could imagine a satire of Disney princesses, a la Enchanted. Or a tougher, stronger Cinderella, like in Ever After. Or a feminist or Marxist deconstruction Cinderella. But just a live-action version of the cartoon, with retrograde classist and patriarchal assumptions left unchallenged? No.
And of course, this new Kenneth Branagh version isn’t that either. It is, however, gloriously and unapologetically romantic in its look and its storytelling. It’s a gorgeous film. (My number one reaction to it, walking out of the theater, was that Sandy Powell just earned her 11th nomination and 4th Oscar for Costume Design). If anything, it’s a humanist reconstruction of the story. Yes, it’s a Cinderella in which a handsome prince sees a beautiful princess at a ball and falls in love at first sight. Except they’ve met before. And he doesn’t know if she actually is a princess, and doesn’t care. And they spend their time at the fancy dress ball playing hooky from it and, you know, talking. Engaging in conversation. And he likes her because she’s vivacious and smart and funny, not just because she looks amazing in that blue dress. (Although she does look amazing in that dress).
A critic I really like, the Village Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek said that she liked the film precisely because it wasn’t full of ‘female empowerment’ messages, that it wasn’t a film that said to girls ‘you can become anything you want to!’ That isn’t actually true, of course. Instead, Ella’s mom, as she dies, tells her two things, to be brave, and to be kind. I love that. I can’t imagine better advice for my own daughters, and my sons too. Be brave and be kind.
Cinderella is played by Lily James, who you probably know from Downton Abbey. And when you look at Lily James in closeup, you realize that she’s hardly a classic beauty; her nose is a little big, her mouth a little wide, her teeth a bit oversized. And it couldn’t possibly matter less. Her smile lights up her face, and she’s got such vivacity and energy and is so open emotionally, she’s spectacular in the role. The prince, Richard Madden, Robb Stark from Game of Thrones, is of course an exceptionally good looking prince. But he’s also a little dorky, a little awkward. You can see that he doesn’t really know how to talk to girls–he’s a prince, an apprentice king, learning politics on the job–but he likes Ella because she’s easy to talk to, because of her open enthusiasm for, basically everything. The evil step-sisters, Drisella (Sophie McShera, Daisy on Downton Abbey), and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), aren’t physically unattractive (they’re not ugly step-sisters), but they’re unkind, mean, selfish and stupid. And the name ‘Cinderella’ is pejorative, an insult. Until Ella embraces it. She doesn’t want her Prince to have any illusions; she wants him to know her as she is, a servant girl. But she says it proudly, with a smile. She’s learned what it means to be brave, and kind.
Cate Blanchett is the evil step-mother, and again, it’s a smart and human portrayal. Blanchett plays her as a survivor, a tough-minded pragmatist who does what she needs to do to get by in a world dominated by men. She expects Cinderella to wait on her and for the household’s dwindling income to extend to fancy dresses, because keeping up appearances is the way to catch a man, and without a man to look after her, how is she to survive? Her scenes with the King’s evil advisor, the Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgaard) are delicious, as we see two crafty practitioners of real-politikk sum each other up, and make common cause.
As we left the theater (I saw it with my wife and daughter, and a niece and her husband), we all laughed a bit, at the glorious preposterousness of Cinderella’s ball gown, at this imagined Mittel-European kingdom, on a picturesque coast, but also with Alps, and rosy-cheeked Scandanavian-looking peasants, but also, apparently, a thriving black community. Of course, it’s a fantasy; the whole thing’s a fantasy. But one with at least one foot in the reality of actual human experience. And a fantasy grounded in the notion that in a tough and brutal world, a world full of death and despair, we still have the capacity for courage. And kindness. It’s a terrific film.