It’s hard not to be frustrated by Walt Disney’s original Cinderella, a film that is as beautifully animated as it is gross. It is the story of a young woman, abused by her family, who just grins and bears it until someone comes along and gives her the night off, so she can meet a handsome prince and get herself married. Women in the 1950 version of Cinderella are either saints or monsters, and the men are just a means to an end.
It is, at best, an intensely problematic story to tell to young children, especially in the guise of the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy. So you might imagine that making Cinderella palatable for contemporary audiences would necessitate a massive overhaul, not unlike Ever After, a film that put swords in Cinderella’s hands and turned the fairy godmother into Leonardo Da Vinci, presumably just for the heck of it. Girl power in a timeless story about feeling powerless. There are worse approaches.
But fortunately for all of us, there are also better approaches, and Kenneth Branagh has taken one of them. His live-action retelling of Cinderella is faithful to the story and tone of the original, but goosed with just enough character development that it doesn’t feel socially backward. If anything, it’s really quite magical.
We open on young Ella (Eloise Webb) in a state of bliss, with her loving father (Ben Chaplin) and caring mother (Hayley Atwell). But all things must pass, and for Ella, they must turn gradually into a horror show. Her mother dies, which would be a traumatic incident under any circumstances, and her dying words beckon young Ella to be kind and courageous at all times. It’s a sweet sentiment that programs her to be sympathetic to everybody, often at great cost.
Her father remarries a stern woman named Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) with two shallow daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), and Lady Treamine becomes immediately jealous of the now-teenaged Ella (Lily James), who is a walking, talking reminder of her husband’s first marriage. When he dies, so too do the family finances. The servants go away and suddenly Ella is put to work doing all of the chores, gradually and disturbingly evolving into the family slave.
Branagh treats the origin of Ella as a little creepy nightmare, a good person thwarted by her own kindness by insidious people who are warped by their own selfishness. Ella only snaps when she realizes that her new nickname – “Cinderella” – has robbed her of the last vestige of her identity. She tries to run away, but meets a handsome prince (Richard Madden) who is pretending to be a mere apprentice. Her life has a little bit of hope in it again. It’s time to tear that away too, thread by thread, until only a Fairy Godmother could possibly save her.
The sense of overwhelming oppression in Branagh’s Cinderella sneaks up on you, and it is rooted so cleanly in character (as opposed to pure contrivance) that it feels uncomfortably real. So when Cinderella finally does get her beautiful new dress – it’s a real stunner – and absconds to the ball, it’s a genuine victory. And her positive influence over the prince, who has problems of his own, and her climactic determination to make the most of her adversity leaves our fairy tale ending feeling well deserved, and not merely granted.
What’s more – and this is the simplest yet most appreciated change – Cinderella goes to the ball, has one enchanting dance, and then actually talks to the prince. She loses track of time (leading, of course, to a fantastic stagecoach chase) not by staring into a handsome man’s eyes but by getting so engaged in conversation with an interesting person that she doesn’t realize that midnight is fast approaching. It’s as close to real love as Cinderella could possibly portray, at least without completely changing the plot.
You know the story of Cinderella, and although Chris Weitz’s screenplay makes a few alterations here and there you are not going to be surprised by its outcome. But Cinderella is no less beautiful for its inevitability, although it’s infinitely more enchanting for taking its characters somewhat seriously. Cate Blanchett is a wonderful villain with a motivation that also breaks your heart, and Lily James is sweetness and light without ever feeling like she’s only being naive. The men are not the gatekeepers to a better life but flawed, funny, strange people with lives all their own.
For once, Cinderella doesn’t seem to be making a disconcerting statement. It just feels like a wonderful little story about good people who deserve to overcome great odds and bad people who were just a hair’s breadth away from being good themselves. All while casting a marvelous spell that makes audiences feel better without also treating us like we’re superficial or dumb. This new Cinderella is better than the original. You’ll have a ball with it.