By Janelle Clausen
Arts & Features Editor
After 65 years of waiting, Director Kenneth Branagh has brought a magical retelling of “Cinderella,” an animated Disney classic. While Branagh (“Thor,” “Hamlet,” “Henry V”) largely stays faithful to its roots, he adds several small twists to entertain a modern audience.
The tale tells of beautiful Ella (Lily James of “Downton Abbey”), condemned to a life of housework by her evil stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and wicked stepsisters after her father dies. The Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) gives Ella the means to escape, attend the prince’s ball and, after a dramatic search for the mystery girl who could fit into the glass slipper, eventually lives happily-ever after.
Glimpsing into Ella’s childhood, her kindness stemming from her family’s love is no secret. From nighttime stories and running about the estate to “being in charge of their own little kingdom,” the bond Cinderella and her father share can make anyone smile. This very love even seemed to power the liveliness of the estate, bringing smiles to the workers. One can only imagine how tragic it is when both her mother- who parts with advice to be kind and courageous- and father die in unexpected circumstances. For James, who lost her father, this role was especially personal.
This live-action remake seems darker from the get-go. Add in the infamous dress ripping scene, absence of song and the contrast between Ella (only later called Cinderella as a joke by her stepsisters) and her surroundings, it’s clear this isn’t as fairy tale-esque as the original. But it still has a little magic, lots of color and a greater complexity in its characters.
Ella operates with kindness and courage. She escapes on horseback- not easy to do in a dress- when she can take no more from her abusive step-family and stands her ground with Kit (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”), the self-described apprentice (actually the prince), while he is out on a group hunt. Soon enough Cinderella implants the idea that just because things have always been done one way, it isn’t necessarily right. While it is still love at first sight, they show credibility and chemistry that goes beyond “I’m pretty, you’re pretty, let’s get married!”
Perhaps the most magical character change came from Blanchett, adding depth to the wicked stepmother. When asked what makes her so cruel, she gives a realistic answer: her age working against her, her useless daughters, the successive losses of husbands and being second-place in Ella’s father’s heart. She didn’t handle loss as well as Cinderella, the beacon of kindness. But honestly, most people probably wouldn’t handle it so well either.
Politics are magically interwoven into the plot. Kit is not the prince, but a prince. The stability of their small kingdom, it seems, relies on finding a suitable queen in another kingdom. Meanwhile, at home, the stepmother is trying to marry off her daughters and ruin Cinderella’s chances with the prince in order to gain political power with the traditionally minded Grand Duke. Love, bravery and kindness eventually triumph, but the elements are interesting nonetheless. It’s easily digestible.
The scenery, however, is overwhelmingly beautiful. The little computer generated imagery used was stellar, from the magical sparkle of Cinderella’s blue dress and glass shoe to the wide shots of the kingdom. Impressive set design and choreography brought both villages and the ballroom to life. The music by Patrick Doyle, a longtime collaborator with Branagh, fits perfectly with it all too.
But the scene was completed by Sandy Powell, three-time academy award winner for costume design. Great attention was paid to every costume, even the seemingly endless cast of extras in the ballroom scene. While there is controversy about Cinderella’s corset-induced notoriously small waist, there is no denying Powell’s impressive handiwork. She might just snag another nomination for her work here.
In a sea of live action adaptation failures, Cinderella’s live action remake is a dream come true.