Published on April 10th, 2015 | by Sarah Stefanson0
With the live action Cinderella, Sir Kenneth Branagh updates Disney’s classic about a kind-hearted girl being hounded by her two fugly-ug sisters and Cate Blanchett.
The original 1950 animated version of Cinderella is one of my top three favourite Disney movies, so this year’s live action remake had a lot to live up to for me. Watching the trailer several months before the movie was released, I saw several promising aspects: Sir Kenneth Branagh directing, the incomparable Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter in the cast, and super dreamy Richard Madden, known to me and many others as Robb Stark from Game of Thrones in the role of Prince Charming. Both my inner squeeing 10-year-old girl and the more discerning grown-up me concerned with quality of craft were worked up to a state of high anticipation by the time I took my seat in the theatre.
We all know the basic plot. Our heroine, Ella (Lily James), is left orphaned at a young age and left to do the bidding of her evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters. In this telling of the story, we get to witness some of the little girl’s life with her good and virtuous parents before each of them dies an untimely death. Before her mother passes on, she asks young Ella to promise to always try to be brave and kind, an admirable theme on which to base a life and a movie.
Years later, Ella’s father remarries and her stepmother, moves into the home Ella grew up in and gradually takes over, installing her two vain, vapid daughters as rulers of the roost. Blanchett plays the stepmother so well that the cracks in her ice cold cruelty reveal the underlying panic and insecurity motivating her appalling behaviour.
When the news comes that Ella’s father has unexpectedly died while on the road, her stepfamily’s pretence of caring for the girl is abandoned and they begin abusing her in earnest. Ella’s mother’s dying wish for her to be kind and Ella’s desire to stay in the family home where she shared so many happy years with her parents, lead her to stay on with her stepmother and stepsisters, even as they begin to treat her like a slave and break her down mentally and emotionally. They even give her a new name, since she is often so tired at the end of the day that she cannot drag herself up the stairs to the bedroom she’s been banished to in the old, dusty attic. She sleeps by the hearth in the kitchen and ends up covered in soot by morning. She is now Cinderella.
Luckily, it is at this point in the story that Ella randomly happens upon the prince in the forest one day. It’s not the standard instant love at first glance Disney trope. The pair does indeed fall for each other pretty damn quickly, but they are at least afforded a conversation in which they are able to reveal essential elements of their character before they decide to be together forever. The prince is taken with her physical beauty as much as he is with her boldness and her kindness. Of course, they leave this first interaction without having learned each other’s names, so while the prince is left with distracting thoughts of the mystery girl, his father, the ailing king, and their advisors at the palace are insisting that he take a wife immediately. A ball is held to which every eligible maiden in the land, even the commoners at the prince’s insistence, is invited.
Naturally, Ella’s stepmother, ever the social climber, has designs on marrying off one of her daughters and securing her family a comfortable existence in the palace. Ella wants to attend to see Kit, the handsome young man she met in the forest that she thinks is an apprentice at the palace, but her stepmother and sisters destroy her mother’s old dress that she had spruced up with the help of her rat and bird friends in the attic. Gratifyingly, the animals do not talk in the live action movie, but they are anthropomorphically adorable and do get to play out a little bit of the dramatic conflict with the stepmother’s malevolent cat that we saw in the original animated version.
Devastated, Cinderella rushes out into the garden to sob, where she finds an old hag, to whom, of course, she is incredibly kind, despite her life falling apart around her steadily. The hag reveals herself to be Ella’s fairy godmother in a shimmering spectacle of a dress and the worst wall of veneers in her crazy mouth. The fairy godmother, played with obvious relish by Helena Bonham Carter, sets about making nearby vegetables and animals into the lavish coach and servants that will take Cinderella to the ball, but warns her that the spell will wear off at midnight. Lastly, she transforms Cinderella’s torn dress into a snazzier, poufier, and bluer version that is distractingly covered in Lucite butterflies and magically makes her waist look about half as tiny as it actually is.
There was a considerable stink made on the internet by ‘concerned’ viewers who accused the filmmakers of digitally altering Lily James’ waist and setting a harmful example for modern young girls. The filmmakers insisted that no retouching was done to James’ naturally thin waist and that the look was accomplished through the combination of the design of the gown and a very tight corset that required James to be on a liquid diet while the ball scenes were filmed (which, naturally, set off a new barrage of criticism). James publically referred to the idea that society still feels compelled to talk about women’s body types to such an extent as “boring” and Madden told the world that James “eats like a boy,” while Branagh explained the physics of corsets (everything that’s displaced by the corset gets hidden by the voluminous skirt). This reviewer will add that the movie is a period piece and in that period, women wore corsets, so modern girls should no more take fashion tips from Cinderella’s corset than they should housekeeping pointers from her straw broom and well water fetching. Also, if you didn’t get upset about Christian Bale starving himself nearly to death for his role in The Machinist, you should probably back off of Lily James for eating nothing but soup on the days she wore her ball gown.
At the ball, Cinderella and the prince share an evening of private conversation and highly suggestive shoe fitting, allowing them to further explore one another’s personality before pledging their undying love, again bucking the typical Disney love story trend.
Just in case you’ve been living in a hole for the last 50 years, I won’t expound on the plot from this point on, as I don’t want to ruin the ending, but suffice it to say, they do live happily ever after.
This version of Cinderella has managed to improve upon everything that was magical and special about the original animated movie, while inserting appropriate nods to modern sensibilities. The prince is a sensitive, generous man with a touchingly close relationship with his father, the king. Cinderella holds up the ideals of bravery and kindness with an open heart. You end up feeling less like the prince swoops in to rescue Cinderella from her dire circumstances than that the two of them lift each other up into a shared happy ever after based on something more than appearances and titles.
The combination of Branagh’s careful direction and a screenplay by Chris Weitz that indulges the fantastic fairy tale while injecting some welcome humanity, gives a very old story new life. The movie looks amazing, a testament to brilliant work done by those responsible for the costumes, makeup, set decoration, and cinematography. I did miss the classic ‘So This Is Love’ duet between the Cinderella and the prince, but when Cinderella sings in this version it is natural, plot advancing and not supported by rat harmonies.
Ultimately, the movie was very satisfying to both the little girl I used to be and the woman I am now, good enough to justify my attendance as a fully-grown adult without a child in tow at the theatre. When the prince slips the glass slipper Cinderella left behind on the steps of the palace at midnight back onto her foot, the movie achieves an iconic, timeless moment of perfect fit.