********* 6 out of 10 *********
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Actors: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
Disney seems to be consciously heading back to its roots. It is reopening those chapters which had been overseen by Walt Disney himself; it is bringing back the classics of its golden age to entertain a whole new generation. Last year, it resurrected the villain of the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and gave her tale a little spin in Maleficent. This time it is the 1950 classic Cinderella which gets a live-action movie. We will soon have Mowgli and his friends of the jungle return in The Jungle Book, and then a retelling of the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast. But unlike Maleficent, where Disney gave a new touch to the old story, Cinderella is simply a rendition of the old tale. And if you expected a newer interpretation of the fairy tale written by the French author Charles Perrault, you will be disappointed indeed.
In Cinderella, we meet a young Ella who lives a happy life in a beautiful estate along with her parents. But the first stroke of misfortune arrives, when her mother falls ill and dies. Keeping her promise to her mother that she will always show courage and kindness, Ella grows into a beautiful young woman (Lily James) along side her widowed father. Things though take a turn when her father marries Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), who comes to live with them, along with her two daughters. And when Ella’s father also dies during one of his travels, she is shunned by her stepmother and stepsisters and reduced to the role of a servant in her own home. But all gloomy tales have a brighter side lurking nearby, and Ella’s story is about to get interesting when a chance encounter with Prince Kit Charming (Richard Madden) will change things forever.
The story of Cinderella is a sweet and touching tale, for who wouldn’t want a kind maiden who has been heaped with misery find joy again? I am certain that when it was shown as an animated musical in 1950, sobs and tears in the theatres would not have been uncommon. Director Kenneth Branagh has maintained that mood in his version too; the hatred for the stepmother will emerge, the thrill when the clock is about to strike twelve would be felt, the desire to see Cinderella escape her captivity cannot be denied. So to his credit, Branagh has done an excellent job in what he wanted to do, and that is to retell the tale of Cinderella. But it is quite unlikely that there would be anyone in the audience who would not know of the fortunes of the maiden Cinderella beforehand, as the original fairy tale is something you get to know about from one source or the other while growing up. The screenplay by Chris Weitz (who is working on the screenplay of Star Wars: Rogue One, by the way) tweaks the older Disney classic here and there, but does not dare to do too much new. It does not even try to alter any of the lead characters a bit, and so we are thrust into the age-old era of fairy tales once more.
I feel we could have had a different version of Cinderella this time. Being kind and having courage is a good lesson for any generation, but being mum while you are harassed and tortured in your own home does not seem right. Could we have done with a Cinderella who fights back a bit? Someone with a bit of ferocity, someone who will not let her clothes be shredded and weep on her misfortunes, someone who will not seek her ‘happy ending’ only when a Prince walks by? Maybe someone like the Snow White we saw in Snow White and the Huntsman, who put on her armor and rode her horse into battle to fight the Evil Queen. But Disney and Kenneth Branagh have let this opportunity pass, which is a disappointment. On the brighter side, Cinderella has some of the best visually captivating scenes you will see this year. Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, who has worked previously with Branagh in Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, is top-notch. Be it the grandiose of Cinderella’s home, the lavish outfits of her stepmother, the stunning gown Cinderella wears to the Prince’s Ball, the exquisite setting of the ball, everything is a beautiful sight for the eyes, and the production design team deserves much applause.
While I have complaints about the lack of progress that Cinderella’s story has made over the years, I can take nothing away from Lily James’ performance in the titular role. She was splendid as the ‘damsel in distress’, sticking to her character all the way, someone worthy of being a princess in a classic fairy tale, which this after all is. There were elements to her character that had to be expressed without words, such as her love for her father, her desire to uphold her promise to her mother, a soft heart which believed in being good and kind, and Lily James steals the show by managing this act as if it is not a performance but her life all along, that she in fact is Cinderella. Here is another young actress with loads of talent, who could have a distinctive career. Playing the Prince Charming was Richard Madden who has a lovely persona about him which would make the ladies swoon. The chemistry between Lily James and Richard Madden is terrific, something which again was quite central to this version of the story that Kenneth Branagh got perfectly right.
Cate Blanchett is an enchantress as an actress, and she has once again shown her versatility in Cinderella. She quite effortlessly became someone who is wicked and cruel in the movie, but there was something more to her too. She gave this character a depth, made her to be a human than a monster who is looking out for her girls and herself, selfish as it maybe, but believable. Charlize Theron took on the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Huntsman and now we have seen Cate Blanchett slip into something a bit nasty too; the villains are not being overlooked at all! Helena Bonham Carter makes a delightful brief appearance as the Fairy Godmother, Stellan Skarsgård as the Grand Duke and Nonso Anozie as the Captain put in fine performances though nothing exceptional is asked of them, and Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger are stepsisters which you would wish never to have, so that implies another job well done. Ben Chaplin and Hayley Atwell have brief roles as Ella’s parents, and do enough to convey the good times that a young Ella had.
Cinderella is the classic fairy tale that Walt Disney might have been proud of, if this were to be 1950 all over again. But it isn’t, and so Cinderella would very well be a feminist’s nightmare in today’s age. There would be those who would be thrilled by the tight corsets and the beautiful gowns, and the ballroom dance, the charming prince, and the visual grandeur that the movie provides in abundance, and who would see it as their old fairy tale coming to life. And wouldn’t worry about it. For them, Cinderella would be an enjoyable journey. But if you have seen all this too often before, and couldn’t care about it any less, then skip this one, for Kenneth Branagh and his team aren’t offering anything new.