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New Release Review - Cinderella

Latest screen adaptation of the classic tale.


Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Lily James, Hayley Atwell, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Richard Madden, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi



Over the past couple of years we've seen classic fairy tales successfully given a new twist. The Spanish production Blancanieves reimagined the Snow White story as a silent era movie, while Disney reworked their own classic take on Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent, updating the story with progressive politics in a celebration of single mothers. You might assume Disney's latest raiding of their back catalogue, the Kenneth Branagh directed Cinderella, would feature similar reupholstering, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have delivered a straightforward retelling of the classic tale with no postmodern winking or political commentary anywhere to be found. This is both the film's strength and weakness.
This version sees Cinders (the perfectly cast Lily James, who seems to have been grown in a Disney lab) left motherless at a young age until, in her late teens, her father remarries. His new wife is Lady Tremaine (Blanchett; again ideal casting), a cold hearted harpy with two insufferable daughters (here the ugly sisters are only so on the inside). The luckless Cinders' father dies while away on a foreign trip, leaving her in the care of Lady Tremaine, who immediately begins to take advantage of the situation, casting poor Ella into the attic and forcing her to run the house while she and her daughters doss around like medieval Kardashians. One day, Cinders stumbles upon a young man (Madden) who claims to be an apprentice, but is no less than Prince Charming, heir to the throne of the kingdom. The two immediately fall for one another, and the rest is the stuff of fairy tales.
Had Branagh's film been released ahead of the ground breaking Maleficent, it likely would have fared better. Usually I'm not one for imposing modern values on classic tales, but the Angelina Jolie vehicle proved that you can update a text to be more socially inclusive without ruining the charm of the original. Sticking so rigidly to the Cinderella tale here means it feels terribly old fashioned in its message. Surely in 2015 we want our daughters to aspire to more than simply being the wife of a celebrity? The movie celebrates the dignity of 'old money', as represented by the kindly figures of Ella's parents and the kingdom's royal family, as opposed to the vulgarity of 'new money' represented by Lady Tremaine and her daughters, yet Cinders 'lucks in' to a place on the royal throne. Fame and fortune is the grand prize here for both parties.
This old fashioned take would be fine if the movie could pull it off with old world charm, but there's a coldness to the film as it simply goes through the motions of retelling this story. A father reading the tale to his daughter would add more flavour to the story than Branagh and Weitz imbue it with here. A stunning stage is set, with an abundance of visual delights in terms of costume and production design, but it's tasteless candy in Branagh's hands. Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Fairy Godmother) are the secret weapons of the movie, but they're both kept far too secret. Blanchett's wicked stepmother is never given the chance to be really...well, wicked, while Bonham Carter's screen time is mercilessly short. Many scenes feel like they're building up to musical sequences that never arrive, while animals appear on the cusp of talking only to be reduced to an odd form of telepathic communication. The movie holds back joy the way tantric sex practitioners hold back bodily fluids.
Much like he did with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Branagh has delivered a respectful adaptation of a classic tale, resulting in a movie that certainly looks pretty but fails to fully engage us. 




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