Kenneth Branagh’s take on Cinderella remains faithful to its source material. The fairy-tale aesthetic is undoubtedly hammered down our heads with the opening narration and breathtaking visuals. One must also not forget Cinderella’s motto, which she repeats like indoctrination throughout the whole thing: have courage, be kind. And indeed, one must apply both these instructions in order to overlook the flaws. Cliché dialogue and tireless scenes of mere staring at the other in awe do have their legitimate places in here; but it does not make it any less cringe-worthy of the adult viewer. Though it is Cinderella’s movie, Cate Blanchett nonetheless steals the show as Lady Tremaine. She makes us feel almost guilty for reveling in her viciousness towards our poor heroine.
It is useless to reiterate the movie’s story, which is universally known. Branagh does little to change the formula. (We are far away from Snow White and the Huntsman, which deserves some credit for trying to change things up a bit.) However, considering that it is a winning one, no one here can blame Branagh for staying utterly faithful to the tale. Casting-wise, the movie is a mishmash of Game of Thrones (Richard Madden, Nonso Anozie) Downton Abbey (Sophie McShera, Lily James) and actors from the Marvel franchise such as Stellan Skaarsgard and Hayley Atwell. Though Lily James is the embodiment of the naive and good Cinderella, she nonetheless gets overshadowed by the two veteran actresses Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter.
Let’s start with Blanchett first. Thanks to Branagh’s directing, her introduction into the movie was the very moment where we felt we had to sit up straight and pay attention. As she stepped out of the carriage, we knew that things really were about to be interesting. Ella’s conversations with mice and her frustrating naivete could only sustain us for so long. Lady Tremaine swoops in like a corrective force—not that Ella deserves any of her cruelty, but the movie certainly needs it—and graces us with glamorous vindictiveness. Blanchett neither downplays nor overdoes it, striking the perfect balance and consequently, becoming the most nuanced character in the movie. At times, we almost feel sympathetic towards her, especially at the end scene. Without uttering a single word, Blanchett manages to convey much of Tremaine’s conflicted nature.
Helena Bonham Carter is also a refreshing sight—literally. We’re used to her playing quirky characters and the fairy godmother is nothing but one of those. She does her thing to perfection, with well-timed punctuation’s of her eyebrows. Her screen time was limited, but it did much good to the story. Not to forget that she was the funniest character by far.
We can skip the interactions between Charming and Ella, which were diluted with very cliche lines. (“Everyone was looking at you!” “No, believe me. They were looking at you.”) I will not deny their attractiveness and chemistry. There is something about Richard Madden’s smile that makes us forgive the poor lines he had to deliver. It’s good to see him alive and in control of a kingdom, as opposed to his alter ego in Game of Thrones who winds up decapitated and very much dead.
I will, however praise and criticize the costume design. Whereas Lady Tremaine’s wardrobe was perfect for the character (who could forget the green satin dress with folds that she wore to the ball), it was a bit lacking when it came to Cinderella’s own dress. Sure, the skirt was voluminous and made for many visually-appealing dancing scenes but the top of it resembled the Halloween costumes that trickled down to department stores after such movies come out. The butterflies that peppered the dress looked cheap and ruined what could have been much more magnificent. Surely, fairy godmother (or the costume designer) really could have done a better job.
There is not much else to comment on. The movie is visually appealing and will make for a good didactic lesson. Children will learn to have courage and be kind but the more skeptic or cynical viewer knows a little better. Branagh takes the fairy-tale and gives it the visual spin it needed without straying too far away from tradition. It’s a good watch, but it could have been written better. Disney’s next scheduled reboot will be Beauty and the Beast, which will star Emma Watson and Dan Stevens who is yet another Downton Abbey star. Let us only hope that the dialogue will have a little bit more substance.