Courage, kindness, and a little bit of magic. That’s all it takes. In the highly cynical world that we live in today, it is refreshing to see a movie with a message this simple and pure. Cinderella is an excellent modern take on the classic fairytale, combining charming performances, a beautiful story, and stunning visuals.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Disney’s latest version of Cinderella begins with Ella (later Cinderella, a nickname given to her by her stepmother and stepsisters because of the cinder on her face) as a young girl. Ella lives in a beautiful home with her loving mother and father (played by Hayley Attwell and Ben Chaplin), where her imagination is encouraged and life is like a fairy tale. Soon, however, her mother falls ill and her father remarries. Her father’s new wife—and Ella’s new stepmother—(played with a grounded vigor by Cate Blanchett) and her daughters Drisella and Anastasia (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) quickly become the heads of the household when Ella’s father falls ill and passes on while away on a journey. Ella soon becomes their servant, cleaning and cooking for them day and night. Soon, however, Ella meets a handsome stranger in the woods (who is actually the Prince, played by Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden), and it is love at first sight. When Ella rides off, and the Prince has no idea who she is, he puts a call out to the entire kingdom to attend a ball at the palace. Soon, there are pumpkins and lizards and glass slippers and a Fairy Godmother, and well, you know how the story goes.
The performances in the film are wonderful, from the main cast down to the day players. Lily James, who has mostly been known for her performance on Downton Abbey, does an incredible job as Cinderella. She portrays the title character as a strong, yet incredibly loving, young woman. She must display many emotions and feelings throughout the film, from grief, to unbridled joy, to compassion, to forgiveness, and many in between. James captures the essence of Cinderella, and she makes the film a fairytale worth watching. In addition, Cate Blanchett does a terrific job as the Stepmother. This is a role that can very easily go in the direction of campiness, as many would likely grasp onto a one-dimensional idea of the “wicked” stepmother. Instead, Blanchett grounds the role, as we see not only her wicked side, but mostly we see the pain underneath it all. She hurts, and she takes it out on the pristine and beautiful daughter of the pristine and beautiful woman whose house she now occupies. The character is written with many layers, and Blanchett is equal to the task. She can be summed up quite well with a line she delivers to Cinderella near the end of the film. When Cinderella asks why she is so cruel, she responds, “Why? Because you are young and innocent, and I…” as she hastily makes her exit. As wicked as she is, there is an incredible amount of empathy and understanding exhibited in Blanchett’s nuanced performance. Helena Bonham Carter has a brief but quite memorable performance as the Fairy Godmother, and Richard Madden plays a Prince that feels deserving of Cinderella’s love.
The visuals in the film are magical. Production Designer Dante Ferretti (known for his work on films such as Hugo and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street) helps create a fully fleshed out world in which this fairytale truly comes to life. From Cinderella’s home to the Prince’s castle, from the carriage to the forest, every set piece helps make the film feel like a magical land (the costumes, designed by veteran Costume Designer Sandy Powell, contribute greatly, as well). Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is equally beautiful, with sweeping shots that really help tell the story and allow us to fully indulge in this world that has been created. And speaking of the story, this updated retelling makes some nice revisions to the original tale. For Cinderella, she is a strong and capable character—not one that is to be rescued by the perfect Prince, but one that is simply deserving of someone to love. The plot moves at a brisk pace, as well, and there is never a dull moment.
There have been many live action updates of fairytales in recent years, and Cinderella ranks right at the top of them all. While a star is born with Lily James, Cate Blanchett delivers a terrific performance in her iconic role. The script is well-paced and made relevant in the modern age, yet it remains timeless. The visuals and style are tied together perfectly by Kenneth Branagh’s direction, as courage and kindness rule the day. See it in the theaters for the full experience.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Movie Review by Mike Danner