Cinderella (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Cinderella (2015)

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Kenneth Branagh directs this modern rendition of Cinderella from a screenplay written by Chris Weitz.  Ella is a girl with a loving family and beautiful home, but a string of tragedies leaves her with two shallow step sisters and a wicked step mother.  Is the magic her now deceased mother spoke of real, or just another fairy tale to help a child cope with life?  Cinderella stars Lily James, Cate Blanchett, and Richard Madden.

Got that universal glow about yaSometimes I’m afraid I won’t get that “movie magic” feeling anymore. I’m not talking about being in the grips of a powerful story told well, but in that sense of wonder I had when I was a kid and watched an orca sail over a kid before disappearing into the horizon. The last time I really felt this grip was when WALL-E almost ended on a memory-wiped loveable robot failing to recognize his crush after a dance through the stars. My “movie magic” doesn’t always need to be positive, but come from a place where I’m still a kid and know everything is going to be ok.

At first glance, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella was not going to restore me to that childlike sense of hope. We’ve been saturated with a number of origin stories for popular characters which come with their own sense of grit and class consciousness. They range from vile dreck like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to the surprisingly nuanced juxtaposition of sexual trauma as fantasy in Maleficent. Even if they have magic, these movies lack a certain magic spark which made Disney’s earliest films and later efforts come alive in my heart.

Branagh seems to be going the way of the “mature” origin story with the first act of Cinderella. There’s a tonal oddness in the way he seems to be balancing three different movies. First we have the rugged optimism of Ella (Lily James) as she struggles to live without her parents to the sounds of yet another Emma Thompson sound-alike providing narration. Cate Blanchett provides the second tone, and the one most overtly fantastical, as she brings a touch of Miss Haversham to her over-the-top performance as the evil stepmother. Finally there’s the touch Branagh usually brings to Shakespeare, as he injects politics into Prince Kit’s (Richard Madden) upcoming marriage to secure a stronger position in the monarchy.

Branagh let's his classical influence shine in wonderful painterly scenes both bright and dark.

Branagh let's his classical influence shine in wonderful painterly shots both bright and dark.

These three tones bounce off one another terribly. Blanchett provides some much-needed levity in spite of her vile alter-ego while James’ performance is just odd. At times James seems to be injecting Ella with a suitably cartoonish sense of optimism but at others is more of a weary soul. Considering the eventual trajectory of Branagh’s Cinderella this ends up making some sense, but her shifts between the two are not especially skillful. Madden does well enough in his role as the Prince but the political considerations are a red herring, an unnecessary stumbling block to the romance, and with each scene of the Prince listening to one advisor or the other how he needs to marry for power it felt Cinderella would lose its way.

In a glorious turn, this mess of a first act ends up being something of the point for Branagh’s Cinderella. The shift is signaled in a delightfully weird turn as the Fairy Godmother from Helena Bonham Carter. She looks like a tree stump at first, and goes to work preparing Ella’s magical night with the steadfast determination of a mildly intoxicated interior decorator. Then Ella transforms and - my god - I felt tingles.

If the muddy plotting and political ramifications introduced in the first act puts Cinderella in the same camp as other reboots, then the rest of Branagh’s film is a direct rebuke to the idea our fairy tales need to be complicated. The magic just takes over, and in a stunning shot Ella becomes a universe unto herself as the tatters of her dead mother’s gown come alive around her. It’s stunning, and with the opportunity to go full-magic James does a remarkable thing with her performance and stays humble. Branagh communicates this in another stunner of a shot when Ella comes to the ball, introduced by no one, and bows respectfully. She’s in the corner, dwarfed by all the pomp and circumstance, but still grateful for this opportunity. It’s a beautiful moment in a movie with plenty more magic to spare.

What grit Cinderella has could have been dispensed of to little effect on the film, but the few visual touches Branagh brings to the disillusioned Ella are effective.

What grit Cinderella has could have been dispensed of to little effect on the film, but the few visual touches Branagh brings to the disillusioned Ella are effective.

I love Branagh’s philosophy here because the political considerations, what Ella means to the evil remains of her family, and the odd grounded approach James took in the beginning is not removed – but simplified. Sure there’s talk of what a marriage to a commoner would do to the kingdom but that’s no longer the focus, a kingdom-wide search for Ella is. Implicit in Branagh’s film is the argument that these old stories do not need to be complicated to still find power in modern audiences, but the implications of these stories need not be entirely forgotten either. Some aspects are dealt with inelegantly, especially since the class system of Cinderella still has black servants everywhere, but the attempt is welcome.

It’s in this grand simplicity we see the real inspiration for Branagh’s Cinderella. The best line to draw is not to the 1950’s animated Cinderella, but 1959’s Sleeping Beauty. There are no singing and dancing animals and the fairytale isn’t quite as cheerily subdued as the former, instead Branagh takes his queue from the grand emotion and confrontations of the latter. Branagh took those lush colors and fluid motions to heart in his painterly constructions, and the ballroom dance receives a suitably bright makeover. At times I longed for Branagh to return to the Baroque touch which graced his best films, most notably the dark presence of Hamlet looming over a celebration, and my fear was quelled with a brilliantly dark and suitably Baroque sequence where it looks like the evil stepmother will have her way.

At times Branagh’s Cinderella dips a bit too far into the same revisionist well as his contemporaries. Really, did we need to know how Ella got her Cinder prefix to become the princess we still cherish? No, and similar world-building answers drag us away from the simplicity of Cinderella. But I can’t begrudge a production which, for an hour or so, made me remember a boy who knew everything is going to be ok.

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Tail - CinderellaCinderella (2015)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Screenplay written by Chris Weitz.
Starring Lily James, Cate Blanchett, and Richard Madden.

Posted by Andrew

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