Mar 23, 2015
It's a good story. And it is well told in this Disney film by Kenneth Branagh with a very good script by Chris Weitz. They understand that this is too good a story, too iconic, too archetypal, to mess with. It's the number one movie in the world and, beyond Disney's enormous muscle, it's because it is a powerful story about the loss of innocence and coming of age.
The younger kids in the theater were bored out of their wits, but then again this story of love and sexual awakening, originally by Charles Perrault, is better suited to older kids and adults. As innocently as it might be rendered by Walt Disney, the image of a crystal slipper (in this case, a Kardashian-like high-heeled pump) fitting the right woman in a shorthand for intercourse between foot and shoe is quite evocative, if not downright fetishistic. All fairy tales are full of sexual metaphors (the Prince's secret garden, anyone?). They are also very dark. In the original tale, the step-sisters are so greedy for the Prince they cut off their toes and a heel to make the shoe fit. Sadly, here there are no such extremes.
At the beginning, we are introduced to little Ella's perfect family, a world of bliss that, we dread, will soon come to an end. Ella's mother dies, as is usual in tales, leaving her dad (Ben Chaplin) to screw things up royally by remarrying a worldly woman, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett, iconic) who comes with two grotesquely vapid daughters, Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger). Ella's stepsisters are mean, vulgar and materialistic, but they are not physically hideous, which is a nice touch. They are ugly from within.
The voice-over narration, beautifully provided by Helena Bonham-Carter, who does double duty as the Fairy Godmother, works. She has savvy, wise opinions. Weitz modernizes the story without making it anachronistic to its own time, as so many of the current animated features do with fairy tales. He also plumps up the thin plot of the fairy tale with realistic character motivations. This makes the story more meaningful and makes us understand why it is a classic. While movies like Shrek, Frozen or Maleficent, almost abandon their powerful source material for the sake of pop culture gags or artificially darkened retellings, this Cinderella tells it straight, and makes it surprisingly moving.
Marriage is still the prize, women are still dependent on the finances of men, and the rich guy still gets the poor girl, but the characters are dimensional. Cinderella (the perfect Lily James) is sweet and way too kind for my taste, but she is also smart and sensible. At first, Prince Charming (Richard Madden) looks too much like a generic teenage heartthrob, but he is given backbone. He's a good guy with a democratic spirit, who wants "the people" to come to the ball, so he can find that awesome country girl he met in the forest. He holds his own against the wishes of his father (Derek Jacobi) because he is confident he can marry for love and not rely on monarchic alliances to rule the kingdom. He's a true liberal. The one aspect of this story that is truly a fairy tale is that anyone from the one percent can be remotely interested, let alone cross paths, with the rest of us.
Cinderella does seem to allow too much abuse from her stepmother, but then she fights back, a little. A revolutionary she ain't, but she takes to heart her mother's last words, good advice it would do us all well to heed: "be kind and have courage". She confronts that awful woman. She asks plainly of Lady Tremaine: "why are you so cruel?"
As evil stepmothers go, Cate Blanchett is the most glamorous of them all, channeling Joan Crawford with blazing red hair and fabulous red lipstick. Costume designer Sandy Powell dresses everybody in the 18th century, but Blanchett looks like a femme fatale from the 1940s. She wears (and wears them well) spectacular gowns in the most gorgeous shades of green, the color of envy. For envy is her thing. She envies youth, she envies beauty, she also envies, it seems, Cinderella's innocence, her goodness, that which she cannot muster. She's been around the block, she lost a husband, slid down in social status, and is bitter for it. Weitz gives her a redeeming feature; after all, she is fighting for her "stupid", as she calls them, daughters. She's the original stage mother. I like my villains villainous, without added justification, but Lady Tremaine's backstory works. She is a vain and scheming woman, but she is trying to survive. And envy is something we all can relate to. I want her gowns.
Passionate discussions were had with my discerning companions about the production design, the color scheme and Cinderella's dress. We all hated the blue of the dress, but I ascribe it to Disney sticking to its own iconography and to its ancillary merchandising. That girl's dress has always been blue, even if a hideous shade. However, this is one spectacular dress. When Cinderella waltzes with the Prince, its undulating flounces reminded me of Ginger Rogers' gowns, which moved to her swaying. Powell has chosen a rich jewel-toned palette for the ball gowns, and everything clashes a bit in Dante Ferretti's production design, which is meant to evoke an old, baroque Europe. It all smacks of a garish old masters' painting, but somehow it works; as if to say, yes, this is an old-fashioned tale, but it still has power. By the way, there should be a retrospective of the work of Sandy Powell. Her costumes are always breathtaking.
As I don't think this is a spoiler for anyone in the Western world, at the happy end, the now young king and his queen seem poised to rule benignly and wisely together, as a team. A nice modern touch, yet still a fairy tale in this day and age... What can I say? I was moved by this film.