Its film festival time in Dublin, as JDIFF rolls around with its usual dazzling array of titles. I haven’t been able to see absolutely everything I wanted to see this year, but have still been able to take in a good few offerings, a mixture of mainstream and indie titles, from nearby and far away, that I hope to get round to reviewing over the next while.
The first is certainly a mainstream effort. Kenneth Branagh’s an accomplished director at this stage, who has mastered filmed Shakespeare and dabbled in action, comic book adaptations and horror over the last few years, well known for his colourful and varied productions as well as his keen eye for detail and his great ability to get the most out of his actors, even in extreme roles (and that’s to say nothing of his exceptional acting abilities, though that isn’t relevant here).
So Branagh is not a bad choice for Disney, as they move along with their continuing efforts to update their classic properties. Last year saw the disappointing Maleficent, featuring a wooden Angelina Jolie and a whole slew of bizarre plot problems. One would be justified in hoping that, with somebody like Branagh at the helm, the live action treatment for the iconic character of Cinderella will fare much better. But then again, maybe this drive for live-action remakes has been ill-conceived from the get go. Here is when trends start to develop, so how did Branagh do? I caught an advanced (for Ireland anyway) screening of Cinderella at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.
After the deaths of her parents, Ella (Lily James) tries to live her life according to her mother’s philosophy of “Have courage and be kind”, but finds herself relentlessly tormented, abused and looked down upon by her cruel stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and stepsisters. Inspired after a chance meeting with a handsome stranger (Richard Madden) “Cinder” Ella gets the chance to find a better life for herself, thanks to the intervention of a kindly beggar woman (Helena Bonham Carter), who is much more than meets the eye.
I think I was expecting an updated version of Cinderella when I first heard about this production. They are so in vogue, be it the swords and armour kind like Snow White And The Huntsmen, the bad guy flip reversal like Maleficent or even the “modern” kind of thing with the likes of Enchanted. And so, it was positively a shock to find out that Cinderella is exactly what it says on the tin and, in story terms, little more. It is the classic fairy tale that Disney made into the famous 1950 animated musical, now caught in live-action and with a extended running time.
And I can say that it is thoroughly enjoyable for that, in unexpected ways. So used have I become to the remake altering things for the sake of being different – not always a bad thing, but not always a good thing either – that the lack of “grit”, modern sensibilities, revisionism or any sort of action driven climax makes Cinderella, in an odd way, seem extraordinarily unique, at least for this day and age. Branagh rejects grit here and discards the pressure of making Cinderella more relevant to a modern audience as studios so often dictate. No, this is traditional, and enrapturing, story-telling and adaptation.
Cinderella actually did have the alarm bells going off in my head in the opening moments, due to the overwhelmingly saccharine nature of its fledgling narrative, opened with perfect Ella and her perfect parents and her perfect life, where everyone and everything is just overflowing with joy and happiness. I couldn’t help but think of Homer Simpson’s fantasy of being rich: “Are you happy Jeeves?” “Yes sir, quite.” “Then we’re all happy”. I worried that I had stepped into a world of too much base emotions, where the tones and themes would be spelled out too plainly and the audience left to suffer through a trite and predictable fairy tale.
But then, for a variety of reasons, Cinderella starts to soar towards higher territory. Call it the introduction of Downton Abbey’s Lily James in the main role, call it Cate Blanchett’s stunning arrival as the wicked stepmother (Miranda Priestly, Agatha Trunchbull and Cruella deVille all rolled into one nasty package), call it the direction, the narration or whatever. The confluence of all of these things, under Branagh’s steady hands, makes Cinderella far from the overly-simple and easily digestible thing that it could have been.
It isn’t just that misery upon misery starts to be heaped on poor Ella, who loses both of her parents and is stuck becoming little more than a servant to her horrible stepfamily. It’s the way in which it is done. The ramping up of the malice and the cruelty is a deliberately slow thing, but our eyes are more transfixed by Ella’s stout resistance to her more negative instincts, holding true always to the last message of her mother. In that way, Cinderella becomes a somewhat torturous but very captivating look at a young woman, aiming to honour her forebears by turning the other cheek, contrasting sharply with the monsters who want to devour her.
I’ve read and heard much on people’s feelings towards this film, and am surprised at, having seen it, criticism that the central character is too timid, too patient too much of a doormat. The criticism comes from a defensiveness towards the lack of obvious feminist values it seems, something that stuff like Maleficent is suffering no shortage of. But that didn’t make it a good film. And Cinderella has no lack of it, but it is a good film.
Ella is that much sought for but little found thing, the “strong female character”, but Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz make her that without resort to action clichés, suits of armour or a climactic sword battle with her stepmother. Yes, Ella is looked down upon, degraded and generally suffers through some appalling treatment, but that just makes the moments of quiet courage and resilience all the more striking. Is it weak to turn the other cheek? Is it weak to seek a path of non-violent resistance? Is it weak to honour ones parents by trying to keep their memory alive in the home they once shared? Ella is wonderful in that she encapsulates all these things, and, in my eyes, shows a stout resistance to the attempts by her stepmother and sisters to ruin her. That’s strength.
And there are more overt and obvious examples, sometimes intellectually, when she demonstrates her superior intelligence with her command of the French language, or later on, when she defiantly stands up to her stepmother, and stays true to the people who really raised her. Cinderella is obviously trying to appeal to the audience that bought into Frozen, and Ella has much in common with Elsa: both experience powerful moments of magic, but their real strength comes from being true to themselves in the face of insidious external forces.
But what of agency? Plenty have complained that, true to the 1950 version, Ella lacks enough of her own to make her a proper character, needing the help of fairy godmothers to go to the ball, and needing to be saved by the films primary male character. But this is missing the wood for the trees in my view: Ella has plenty of her own agency if you look with a keener eye. She alone captures the Prince’s attention. She alone summons up the courage to pursue him at the ball (and, crucially, without knowing who he really is). She alone wins his heart. She alone remains steadfast in her belief that kindness and goodness are required virtues, which keep her pure and innocent even under the repeated assaults of her stepmother. I suppose, and it isn’t much of a spoiler really, she does get saved by Kit at the conclusion, but I felt that her sweet singing, that which attracts the prince’s attention in the first place, was the most tangible sign that she remains herself, the films true victory. Cinderella probably won’t become an icon of feminist cinema, but I have seen plenty of “kick-ass” female characters that left barely any impression on me. Ella did, sometimes in her quietest and most reserved moments.
The central arc of Ella and her running battle with what her stepmother represents is one part of Cinderella, but it also works as a sweet and very enjoyable love story. Sure, it has those beats that were formulaic 65 years ago, but it still makes for an enchanting fairy tale: they “meet cute”, they spar verbally, the prince falls hopelessly in love with this mysterious girl. And even though they spend much of the film seeking each other, the warmth and affection that is obvious between them gives Cinderella that vital emotional spark, which makes the inevitable happy ever after all the more satisfying.
And Branagh isn’t content with Prince Kit being just some placeholder character, a “Prince Charming” archetype to fall head over heels with Ella. Kit’s a character, complete and whole, himself, who displays depth and evolution throughout the course of the film, caught between his desire for the mysterious girl he met in the forest, and the demands of a Kingdom that needs its future ruler to forge a strong dynastic marriage with other royalty. You feel Kit’s conflict, but also understand how he makes his choice, to seek out the “honest country woman” his Kingdom really needs.
And those around him are wonderfully fleshed out too, when they could have been nothing characters. Derek Jacobi’s King must deal with his impending death and his responsibility to instil cynicism in his son when it comes to love, even when his own heart says otherwise, Nonso Anozie’s Captain of the Guard provides that more idealistic advisor and much needed comic relief and even Stellan Skarsgard’s Grand Duke, who could so easily have been a moustache twirling villain of the stupidest kind, is the more engaging kind of schemer, who plots to deny the future King his true love, but does so with the best interests of the Kingdom at heart. The palace characters have several great scenes together and interact brilliantly, whether it is the King and his son’s extended and heart breaking farewell, or the romantic Captain clashing with the more practical Grand Duke. Hell, when it comes to other characters, you can even understand the thought process and goals of the stepmother, who wants security for her and her daughters, having lost it twice over.
Cinderella revolves around its pivotal central sequence, the transformation of the title character into the “mysterious princess” and the following ball scene. Branagh does just what is required here, imbuing his production with magic, colour and majesty, allowing James and Madden the chance to progress their relationship through dance, and offer what might be the pinnacle of live-action fairy tale adaptation. It’s the only real example of “magic” in the film, but in truth all of the stuff with the fairy godmother serves as just an amusing sideshow and a chance for some sparkly effects, before the more engaging and heart-warming stuff at the actual ball, when Ella’s inner beauty translates to a spectacular outer radiance. Branagh aims for flashy sights but also deep seeded nostalgia with such moments, and even I, usually more cynical, found myself swept away with the presented spectacle.
Cinderella moves from there onto its expected final act, and nothing that happens will come as a surprise. No last minute changed ending here, no attempt to add a modern spin at the death. You find yourself rooting for Ella, and waiting expectantly for wedding bells and just desserts. But even when going through these motions, Branagh does leave time for some strong individual statements on Ella’s part, that offer a pertinent and rewarding climax to her relationship with “Lady Tremaine”.
While there is a certain predictability in that, I still think it works. This is a very old story, and has been told a thousand different ways already. It may not end with any kind of challenge to the audience, but it is still entertaining. It may not be able to gain any kind of staying power – it’s a long time since 1950, and modern cinema moves a lot faster – and certainly it might stick longer in the memory if Branagh had attempted something a bit more different, daring or even ambitious (but only in plot terms). It is an issue that will vary in size depending on the viewer. For me, it is not so much a big deal, but I can easily understand if others find such a purist and traditional adaptation of the story unappealing, even with all of the assorted bells and whistles. You might want more than the sense that, sometimes, the film is just going through the motions, though I firmly believe the best is made of it. There’s a very iffy balance to be weighed there: maybe Branagh could have been a bit more imaginative at times, but if his aim was to bring a classic fairy tale and present it as it would have been presented in a different age – albeit with modern filmmaking techniques and resources to spruce it up – then I say he has succeeded with the narrative.
Lily James brings a really fantastic warmth and likeability to the Ella character, right from the moment she takes over from the more lackadaisical Eloise Webb. It’s a hard role: so often, Ella is left subservient to others in a scene, or can only talk to herself. But James exhibits strength and force of will throughout even these moments, making us believe fully in the girl that is committed to having courage and being kind to all of those around her, even if they don’t deserve it. She’s wonderfully flirty and equal in her exchanges with Kit, heart-wrenching in those other moments of sadness or breakdown, and makes Ella one of the most amiable female protagonists that I have seen recently.
But it is fair to say that she is almost outdone by the ever wonderful Cate Blanchett. Blanchett steps into the shoes of the wicked stepmother, and easily musters up the required bile, poison and cruelty in every insult, cackling laugh or just that heart-stopping stare. It’s no great insight to say that Blanchett lives and breathes her role on screen, but it is still fantastic to see nearly every time we see her on film. Her Tremaine is someone you dislike instantly, come to despise intently, but might even sympathise with just a little bit before the end. In short, she’s a great villain, and Blanchett’s consummate performance is why. There is a different Cinderella film, one is the style of Maleficent, that could easily have been made about this epic villainess.
I also loved Richard Madden as Kit. I’d be worried that he might find himself typecast if he keeps this up but he was far more enlivened and likeable here than he was as Robb Stark, even though they are both similar roles. His Kit is a young man on the verge of serious responsibilities, but is still capable of a smile, a pithy comment and that shining look in the eye. His interactions with Jacobi were great, some of the films very best moments, an equal in many respects to those shared between Ella and her parents earlier in the film.
There isn’t a bad egg in the supporting cast either, all of them doing great work with the solid script and the accompanying direction. The stand-outs are the previously mentioned Jacobi, Skarsgard and Anozie, all accessible and interesting characters, who rein back on the potential over the top possibilities for more grounded performances. Holliday Granger and Sophie McSherra work really well as dumber and more ridiculous versions of their mother, creatures to be pitied rather than scorned. A number of bit players also leave their mark, not least Alex McQueen and Rob Brydon in minor comedic roles, or Hayley Atwell as Ella’s mother, who has brief time onscreen, but leaves a very big impact on Ella and the audience. I felt Ben Chaplin could have been a bit better as Ella’s father, but he was sort of one-upped by the wonderful women he shared his scenes with. Lastly of course, there is Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother. I wouldn’t say she set the world on fire when she is actually on screen, which is only for a few minutes, maybe because those minutes were dominated by CGI shininess. But her narration is rock solid, forming the essential spine of the script.
You can always tell when a director is invested in the thing that he/she is at the helm of, and you can always tell when they aren’t. The difference between a paycheck and a passion project can be stark, but thankfully Branagh is firmly in the latter category. So few directors have the same care or eye for character framing that he does, even if it something as simple as focusing on the fullness of James’ face or the side of Blanchett’s. Character introductions are sublimely filmed, most notably the stepmother, stepping out of a carriage and encompassing the frame like a demon growing in size, surveying all that she intends to dominate. In Cinderella, Branagh displays an obsession with doorframes as a natural, well, framing device, and with the amount of ornate examples peppered throughout, it works well enough.
When Branagh has to go the CGI well, which is often enough in fairness, he is able to show some wisdom and restraint when required. The large establishing shots of quaint manors, throbbing towns or majestic palaces are executed well, and the magically created carriage, footmen, horses and driver are formed and disestablished brilliantly, particularly when they all revert back to their original forms, in a scene that is beating with tension and thrills, without any of the characters actually finding themselves in any serious peril. The animals of 1950 are along for the ride in computer generated form too, providing some welcome comic relief at moments, no more than when the hilariously named “Lucifer”, Tremaine’s evil-minded cat, slams into a dresser in pursuit of Ella’s mice friends.
The best thing I can say about Branagh’s direction is just that his scenes and camerawork always combine to make whatever is being depicted onscreen at any one time interesting, but not overwhelming: there are lots of clever camera movements, lots of fine details and lots to take in, but never to the extent that everything passes in a blur. He’s like the anti-Michael Bay: there is lots happening in every shot, but not so much that your eyes want to throw up.
But this film, and Branagh’s direction, would be nothing without the production department. Not for nothing has the films costume designer, Sandy Powell, won three Academy Awards for her craft. Those wins were for Shakespeare In Love, The Aviator and Young Victoria: I genuinely think that Cinderella outstrips them all in its clothing, and another gong might be in the offing. It’s rare in my reviews that I find myself talking about costuming to a great degree, but it has to be seen to be believed here. Everyone is dressed famously, everyone is brought to life in just the right way with what they are wearing. The stepmother is the pre-eminent example, where the various shades of vile green her oft-complicated and sinister dresses contain marking her out, but there is also the princely uniforms of Kit, the moronic stuff the stepsisters throw on and the usually simple but always elegant garments that Ella herself struts around in. Whether covered in ash or covered in sparkles, she can’t fail to make an impression.
Combine that with Dante Ferriti’s seriously impressive set construction, full of detail, craft and care, and Branagh has everything he needs to direct an explosion of colour and vibrancy, creating a delightful world for his characters to caper around in, but never letting it engulf them either (he did the same thing in Thor, but does it even better here). The ball sequence is the stand out naturally, where everything – the gowns, the room, the candlelight, the music and encompassing power of the camera – combines to create a near flawless experience for the audience, a masterpiece of fairy-tale film.
Screenwriter Chris Weitz has been in the news recently as the penmaster for Star Wars: Rogue One, and after viewing this film, I am assured that the standalone’s for a galaxy far, far away are in good hands. Weitz demonstrates a wonderful knack to mix heartfelt declarations, cold malice and back/light comedy together, in a script that is bubbling over with emotion and feeling. A lot is being borrowed from 65 years ago, but there is plenty being added too. Ella’s character being the purest embodiment of kindness and courage comes through in nearly every word she says (or doesn’t say in some instances), just as the stepmothers horribleness does for her.
Her romantic dialogue with Kit is sincere and memorable, even if it is something as basic as the oft-repeated “just so”. Kit alone is given the chance to stand-out too, whether it is in his refreshingly loving relationship with his father – how easy would it have been for that to be just another stern and distant father with an unloved son – or in his brilliant retorts to the Princess complimenting him on his “small Kingdom”: “I trust you won’t find it too confining…”
In truth, it is Tremaine who gets the lion’s share of the better lines, either spoken or about her: one of the early stand-outs is the fairy god mothers wonderful double meaning when she proclaims Tremaine had experienced grief, “but wore it wonderfully”. Her spitefulness is both brutally simple – “Do shut up” she deadpans to her daughter trying to sing – and more overtly powerful, as she proclaims her hatred for Ella is because she is “good, innocent and kind” when she herself is none of those things. Her back and forth with the Grand Duke was the sort of interaction that was begging for more time.
Patrick Doyle’s score is nothing to really get too excited over, though I wouldn’t say it’s terrible. It’s just that it fails to really land in the memory, melding into the background, providing a positive accompaniment when required but little more. There is something to be said for a score that does not dominate the film like some regrettably have, but Cinderella’s is just on the wrong side of that divide, not grabbing enough of the attention for its own good. In terms of the general production of the film, it is one of the few areas where Cinderella falls down. Maybe it could have done with a few musical numbers like its direct source material, with sections of the film seeming ripe for something in the “Let It Go” vein.
Some brief spoiler talk, such as there is, follows.
-Branagh, present at the screening I attended, related a brief anecdote that he felt described his attitude to the Ella character. He knew a usually mild-mannered man once who, on the verge of losing his temper in Branagh’s presence, declared “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness”. I think it is easy – too easy – to see Ella as a simpering doormat who should be standing up for herself more, but I felt that, at the conclusion of the film, the way in which she verbally bitch slaps her stepmother was more than worth any supposed doormat-ness. That’s her strength and her power, an ideal dearly held from her departed mother.
-Moreover, Ella’s final words to her stepmother – a very keenly meant “I forgive you” – gives Cinderella and added bit of sublimeness to its ending. Forgiveness is, as Brendan Gleeson put it in Calvary, a very under-rated thing. Moreover, it is also an expression of strength, because isn’t the easier path to give into hate? Ella, a strong, confident and moral character, is willing to let her enmity with her stepmother go, and offer an absolution that might be undeserved in some eyes, but perfectly fits what we have been shown about Ella.
-In that, Cinderella is also a film with fairly strong religious overtones, particularly, of course, Christianity. Christians looking to see a film imbued with the central tenants of their faith – Judge not, love they neighbour, the meek shall inherit the earth and so on – could do worse than enjoy a screening of Cinderella, which might not have the staying power of Cavalry, but makes a similar impression.
-In regards the possible ways that you could make an adaptation of Cinderella that can be both different from the more traditional examples while not going off the rails completely, I found myself thinking about a gender swap. But then I was somewhat troubled: for in a version of the story where Ella is a man and Kit is the woman, it would be all too easy for it to be a very different story, of a lowly commoner man worming his way into a seat of power thanks to a besotted princess. That was the scenario that immediately popped into my head, which then got me thinking about the standard gender roles that my culture has instilled in my mind, which I just go to automatically. Wow, that got away from me.
-Man, the poor Duke. OK, he connived with Tremaine and worked against the King’s wishes, but he’s not wrong either: an advantageous marriage with a foreign royal would be better for the Kingdom at large, and everything the Duke does is for that Kingdom. But, he gets found out and exiled. King Kit can’t live on idealism forever, and monarchs need people like the Duke around sometimes.
-I’m not going to be the only one noting how weird it is that Richard Madden’s royal character in this film basically does the same thing his royal character in Game Of Thrones does, just with much less terrible results. I’m also sure that, during the ball sequence, the production team had to bite their tongues to not sing “The Rains Of Castamere” or whisper “The Lannisters send their regards!”
-The film is actually missing the expected …”and they lived happily ever after”, which seems like an odd exclusion to make, it seemed so natural.
-Though, it was a neat touch for Helena Bonham Carter to be given the classic “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” to sing during the credits after James’ rendition of the iconic “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes”.
I really enjoyed Cinderella. I think that, while it lacks a certain amount of ambition and has a few other regrettable flaws – like the score, and some of the overly-sentimental moments, particularly near the start – it’s a very solid and very entertaining production, both from a story, character and visual perspective. In fact, I think that it is one of Branagh’s best films, a fine example of the kind of wonderful directing he can do, with the camera and with the actors at his disposal. James and Blanchett do the cause of leading female roles in Hollywood a lot of good here, and the rest of the cast back them up strongly.
Yes, it’s a nostalgia trip, and yes part of you may well wonder what kind of relevance such a fairy tale can have for a modern audience. But forget all of that, and just let yourself fall in love with Ella, her struggles and misfortunes, and that inner beauty that allows her to live according to that wonderful creed. “Have courage and be kind” is such a rare message for film to spell out nowadays, but the setting and story of Cinderella are perfect for just that kind of theme. Wonderfully extravagant in nearly every level of its production, beautifully acted and delightfully directed, Cinderella is one of Disney’s best efforts of recent times. If you want to go the ball, Branagh will take you there. Fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).