Disney continues to mine the Magic Kingdom deeper than the Seven Dwarves when it comes to finding inspiration for their live-action output. Maleficent skewed the material in an attempt to turn origin into originality; the magic felt forced, with Angelina Jolie’s wonderful animation cell incarnate its undoubted saving grace. Cinderella plays it by the book, literally, from once-upon-a-time to happily-ever-after; you’ll recognise every beat of this belle of the ball fairy tale, but despite the familiarity, it’ll charm the princely jodhpurs off you.
When death robs our titular scrubber (James) of her loving parents, young Ella is forced into a life of servitude at the hands of her mean spirited stepmother (Blanchett), and her larger than life daughters, Anastasia and Drisella. Her only friends are the assorted creatures that roam the grounds or visit her drafty attic room. A chance woodland meeting with a handsome Prince (Madden) leaves him smitten, so much so that he invites all eligible maidens to a forthcoming Royal Ball, at which he is supposed to choose a suitable bride in order to ensure the stability of the Kingdom. You know the rest; there are pumpkins, glass slippers, blue dresses, and a Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo spouting Helena Bonham-Carter.
Cinderella is as sumptuous as filmmaking gets, it’s as though the animated movie has been filtered through a lens and poured onto a canvas; the fields are specked with multicoloured flowers, the Palace is rendered as if from the pages of a pop-up book, and the set design and framing of shots – note Cinder’s introduction with her feet arched out of her simple shoes as foreshadowing, or Blanchett’s staircase posturing in a manner that would make Norman Bates shiver – are as visually accomplished as anything Kenneth Branagh has done before. It isn’t garish like a Tim Burton skittle vomit nightmare either; a world is created and magic is sprinkled upon it by the creative team.
Casting is a triumph of the predictable and surprising; Blanchett is delicious as the Bette Davis styled villain, with a troubling laugh and the propensity to venomously hiss lines like “do shut up” to her bumbling daughters. They are perhaps the weakest aspect of a film that attempts to flesh out certain aspects of the source material, but leaves “The Ugly Sisters” as little more than frustrating caricatures.
Richard Madden is suitably charming as the Prince, and much like the film as a whole, grows on you as you adjust to the over-earnest, Downton style vibe of proceedings. His scenes with Derek Jacobi’s King walk a saccharine tightrope, but they work, and that’s important because we’re meant to believe that Cinderella would fall in love with this fella after only a couple of encounters.
The real surprise is Cinders herself, played in luminescent fashion by Lily James; doe-eyed, fragile, and infectiously likeable, she also gives our put-upon heroine a steel rod up her back, rather than the alternative of a simpering victim waiting to be saved by her Prince Charming. Obviously looking to tap into the Frozen market by having a strong female protagonist as a lead, in that regard, and largely thanks to James’ wonderful performance, Cinderella is a resounding success.
Despite adhering strictly to the 1950 original, this old-fashioned tale should melt the heart of even the harshest of cynics, and impress with its majestic scale, one that takes a refreshing back seat of the carriage to the brilliantly portrayed characters.
Dir. Kenneth Branagh, US, 2015, 105 mins
Cast: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter
Review by Matthew Rodgers
[SRA value=”4″ type=”YN”]