March 24, 2015 Leave a comment
Having lost her mother at a young age, Ella (Lily James) is later deprived of her father, too, leaving her in the care of inter-rim step-mother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). At first cohabiting with the Tremaines, including step-sisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger), Ella is soon demoted to mere servant as dwindling funds necessitate the dismissal of staff. Eager to marry either of her own children off to Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Lady Tremaine escorts them to a ball at the palace, leaving Ella — now dismissively referred to as cinder-Ella, on account of her sleeping by the fire — to make preparations for their return. Ella’s Fairy Godmother, however, has other plans: a few waves of her wands and Cinderella is transformed into a princess, complete with transportation and entourage, and the Prince is soon transfixed by her presence.
Not that this review even needs a synopsis, given how ingrained the Cinderella story is in modern-day popular culture. Whether you know it from the original European folktale, the 1950 Disney animation or the character’s cameos in the Shrek series and last year’s Into The Woods — not to mention the countless other adaptations, be it in film, theatre or ballet — the narrative never really changes: there’s always a girl, a prince and an evil step-mother involved somehow. Director Kenneth Branagh takes perhaps the fewest liberties yet in his Chris Weitz-scripted, Lily James-starring big screen translation, which strips the story of its musical moments and post-modern subversions to focus on emotional realism rather than romantic fantasy. Like Alice In Wonderland (or Underland, misheard by young Alice) and Snow White and the Huntsman (which took the dwarves to war), cinder-Ella wants to be about more than just magic.
The problem, however, is that without that enchantment Cinderella isn’t all that much fun. Successive storytellers have tried to make the character compelling but she is always outshone by The Fairy Godmother or The Fairy Godmother’s transfigurations. Whereas Branagh managed to ground Marvel’s Thor in the present without compromising on either humour or high fantasy he has turned Cinderella not into a modern-day princess movie for all but a rather staid period drama too tedious for children but not interesting enough for adults. In fact, the audience spends more time with Ella’s ill-fated mother than they do with the aforementioned fairy, meaning that the famous — and still pretty fabulous, it must be said — transformation sequences seem out of place when they should feel right at home. Bonham Carter is terrific fun as The Fairy Godmother, her performance relatively restrained but still characteristically deranged, but worse than being understated she is also underused. For the most part, the actress is relegated to voice-over duty and forced to narrate the less interesting aspects of Ella’s life.
Instead, Branagh spends his time explaining plot developments that nobody needs explained and establishing characters that most have known since childhood. It doesn’t matter how Cinderella came to live with her evil step-mother, and yet this latest movie spends almost its entire first act focusing on that precise string of contrivances. It seems strange that Branagh — and indeed Weitz — should spend so much time simply naming their protagonist (why oh why couldn’t they have just christened her Cinderella in the first place?) only to then glaze over the fact that a lizard has been magically transfigured into a footman. However, as with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Branagh’s last cinematic adaptation after Thor, the main problem is the uninspiring and ultimately anonymous cast (though the inclusion of Rob Brydon is almost as noteworthy as Michael Starke’s appearance in the former). Rather than casting spells, Cinderella seems intent on breaking them: even in her trademark glass slippers, newcomer James fails to sparkle, while television actor Madden isn’t nearly charming enough or Blanchett sufficiently evil to live up to their respective titles. By attempting to humanise their characters the actors have robbed them of their identities.
Although better than both Alice in Wonderland and Snow White and the Huntsman, Cinderella continues to do nothing to inspire confidence in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptations of its classic animations — Joe Wright’s Pan is next, scheduled for release in July. Branagh’s latest is all pumpkin, no carriage.