March 12, 2015

Cinderella

The coal never bothered me anyway

Cinderella
Grade: B -
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Nonso Anozie, Stellen SkarsgÄrd and Derek Jacobi
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time 1 hr. 52 min.

When Kenneth Branagh makes a movie, he makes a MOVIE, complete with the classical gestures of grand visual flourishes and accessible themes. Beyond his Shakespeare adaptations, he hasn’t directed anything that approaches knotty narrative complexity since 1991’s Dead Again.

Cinderella is almost rebellious in its traditionalism. Unlike the devices employed for many recent fairy tale reimaginings, Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz don’t rework the story for contemporary cultural considerations or update the setting to some modern-day metropolis. And don’t expect a live-action musical—the iconic songs from the 1950 Walt Disney Animation classic are jettisoned, too, save for the briefest of references. [For your daughter’s animated musical fix, arrive early for the new Frozen Fever short that precedes the feature film.]

What remains are the basic contours of Charles Perrault’s original tale, written under the name “Cendrillon” in 1697, melded with a few new twists. After the death of her mother, Ella (Lily James of Downton Abbey) whiles away her bucolic days with her dotting father (Ben Chaplain). Trepidation arrives once dad remarries to Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), a preening dragon lady dragging her two noxious, nattering daughters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) in tow. Once Ella’s father abruptly dies, her stepmom banishes her to the drafty attic and makes Ella wait hand-and-foot on her stepsisters, who take to derisively calling her “Cinderella” after the soot smearing her face from having to sleep so close to the warmth of a fireplace.

While riding through the forest one day, Cinderella happens upon the Prince (Richard Madden)—both conceal their true identities but are nonetheless instantly smitten. Besotted with this unknown girl, the Prince invites all the maidens in the kingdom to a ball where he will choose his future bride. Lady Tremaine sees opportunity for her daughters but none for Cinderella, who is forbidden from attending.

The rest of the story is well-trod: there’s a Fairy Godmother (a dizzyingly daft Helena Bonham Carter) and her pumpkin carriage, goose driver,  lizard footmen and mice equines. There’s an electric blue gossamer dress seemingly patterned after Elsa in Frozen, and, of course, the glass slippers. And all of it still expires at midnight.

Besides Cinderella, loss is the theme that permeates most of the key characters, including the Prince, who is coping with the death of his own mother and the impending death of his father, the King (Derek Jacobi). And while Cinderella's stepsisters are one-dimensional brats, Branagh and Blanchett imbue the stepmother with something approaching empathy. She’s inexcusably cruel to Cinderella, but not inexplicably. She, too, has suffered the death of her first husband, the love of her life, and even after marrying Cinderella’s father she perceives herself as an outsider in someone else’s home.

Blanchett toes the line between vamp and camp quite ably—even her mesmerizing, angular visage is a portrait of cinema classicism. But other than Bonham Carter’s idiosyncratic turn, the other performances are merely adequate. James is pretty and suitably sweet, but she brings little to her character beyond the requisite poise and kindness under duress.

Indeed, the cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos and production design by Oscar-winner Dante Ferretti are the real stars of this show. The baroque grandeur is immersive, from the spired ascent to Cinderella’s attic prison to the country estate stylings of her home to the opulence of the royal palace. This Cinderella won’t introduce you to any untold stories, but you’ll feel like the belle of the ball.