If you can imagine the Disney fairy tale animated film of the same name brought to the screen in all its resplendent glory as live action, then Kenneth Branagh’s version certainly fulfils that. A consistently visually bold film even though it does lack a sense of originality or uniqueness in the story. Regardless it’s still a pleasure to watch for young and old alike.
We first meet our heroine Ella (Eloise Webb) as a young girl, living a simple happy life with both her father (Ben Chaplin) and mother (Hayley Atwell). However when her mother dies, her father later remarries the widow Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) who brings along her own two daughters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) into the family fold. Ella (Lily James), now a young woman, politely and graciously welcomes them into her family and life, even though from the outset they treat her with disdain or mock her simplicity, even dubbing her “Cinderella” after a mishap napping by the hearth. Her mother made her promise to always have courage and be kind and so she continues to live by that mantra. But soon after this new change in family dynamic, her oft-travelling merchant father ends up passing away whilst on a business trip, leaving poor Ella stuck at the mercy of Lady Tremaine, who exploits Ella’s kindness to turn her into their own personal servant/slave girl. Ella’s miserable life takes a turn for the better though when a chance meeting with the handsome Prince Kit (Richard Madden) paves the way for our magical ball and the classic fairy tale ending with a few tweaks to the original story.
One of the first things you will notice with this film is that from beginning to end it’s visually gorgeous. From Ella’s home, through to the costumes and right up to the panoramic kingdom (albeit being CGI) and the climactic ball scene, everything is striking as far as the eye can see. You can thank the acutely detailed sets by Dante Ferretti and the breathtaking beauty of the costumes to Sandra Powell, because these things really do add up to making this seem like a fairy tale come to life. Powell’s costumes in particular add to our character’s personalities. Cinderella begins in simple natural coloured tones shifting into her demure or dirty dresses once she ends up in servitude, progressing to the climax of her blue ballgown. However it’s the dresses for Lady Tremaine that are runway worthy. Blanchett in particular lovingly dubbed one green number the “gherkin” due to its colour and shape making it look remarkably pickle-like however she wears it magnificently. Whilst our twin step-sisters have these ridiculous OTT garish numbers in mismatched colours and patterns to complement their scatter-brain like personas. Props to the VFX team on their work particularly on the sequence of transforming Cinderella’s animal friends from lizards into footmen and mice into horses and a pumpkin into a coach, and then the reversal back again as the clock strikes midnight is even funnier in its execution.
Branagh’s vision doesn’t stretch far from the Disney storyline, however one particular tweak that helps the overall narrative make more sense is having Cinderella coincidentally bump into the Prince before the ball. Neither character reveal their true identity to each other, with our Prince giving his name as “Kit” and his occupation as an “apprentice at the court”. Whilst Cinderella not even giving her name but merely sharing her kindness credo and persuading he spare the life of the stag his party had been hunting. Having both meet on such equal and mysterious terms enables our characters to have a “love at first sight” moment without it being too overly syrupy. This also gives them both a reasonable modus operandi, for the Prince to convince his father King (Derek Jacobi) to host the ball and invite all the fair maidens of the land, and for Cinderella to attend said ball in the vain hope of each meeting their fair stranger again.
James’ performance as Cinderella is lovely, she never comes across as too sheltered and even her moments of banter with her mice friends is endearing. Even though the mice don’t actually speak they’re given enough squeaks and chirps and movement for the audience to be given the impression Cinderella understands them. And it’s her never-ending internal well-spring of kindness that she relies upon to not only make her lovable but loved by the Prince. The antithesis to this is Blanchett’s evil stepmother, combining her jealousy of Cinderella’s beauty (compared to her own failing daughters) and her ruthlessness at securing a stable wealthy future into this malice hidden underneath a striking veneer. They are their own ying and yang, of kindness VS cruelty. Helena Bonham Carter’sFairy Godmother is fairly standard goofy crazy Carter we’ve seen before and we didn’t get nearly enough of it but hey something is better than nothing, and she does narrate the film too.
This Cinderella is by no means an attempt to outshine the Disney animated classic, nor does it ever seem to feel that way. It comes across as more of an homage and an opportunity to add a few little modern updates to the original as well as an opportunity to just go nuts on the visual spectrum. Some of the younger kids may struggle with the near 2 hour running time but this is a fun affair (except maybe the first 20 minutes with all that death) that the whole family can enjoy.
Film Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
There’s a 10 minute feature called “A Fairy Tale Comes To Life”, which features director Kenneth Branagh and the cast and crew talking about bringing this classic story to life in a new way. They speak of the reference points from the original 1950 Disney animations, and the liberties they took to “fill in the gaps of the story”. In the short clip “Costume Test Fun”, the work of costume designer Sandy Powell is shown off while showing off the actors in lighter moments. “Staging The Ball” is a featurette about bringing the glamorous ball scene to life. We get to meet the animal actors in “Ella’s Furry Friends” and are treated to an alternate opening sequence that shows more of Young Ella that was a bit of an “experiment” according to the director’s introduction.
It’s a small selection of extra features, but such is to be expected from a one disc edition. A digital copy is also included with the purchase!
Special Features Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Cinderella is available on Disney DVD and Blu-Ray now. Film review by Carina Nilma. Special Features review by Larry Heath.