Dave White
Cinderella Review

Dave's Rating:


Say yes to the dress.

The Disney Princess Machine knows you kind of hate it. It has, after all, gender-policed the hell out of your children, enticing your little daughters with gowns and tiaras, while leaving the boys mostly to their own devices, give or take a million talking Buzz Lightyears.

Lately, though, in case you missed it, there's been a tweaking of the formula, with animated films like Brave, Frozen, and the live-action Maleficent. To one degree or another, they're movies that challenge received ideas about how female protagonists should behave, what they can expect from the world, and how they'll be rewarded for their efforts. It's not the solid smashing the patriarchy deserves, but it's something.

Into this landscape arrives Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, where the money is on the screen, the corsets are tight, the mood and style is High Classic, and the feminist question, one that was always waiting under the surface, involves the nagging mystery of why women would treat other women with cruelty for the sake of men.

The story is the one you already know: good-hearted Ella (Lily James) is orphaned into the "care" of a wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two equally despicable stepsisters, who re-name her Cinderella. They commit her to a life of servitude. They forbid her to attend the Royal Ball. Then they shred her dress when she decides to go anyway. A fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, strange and jittery, as though having stepped out of a Tim Burton-directed deleted scene, the film's major misstep) arrives to correct this wardrobe crime, tricking it out with glass slippers and a gilded pumpkin coach. The Prince is smitten, the bell tolls midnight, the shoe is left behind, and then it's a waiting game until true love sets the world right.

That means that if there's a spoiler to be divulged it's that there are no spoilers to be divulged. This is not a radical re-interpretation, unless you consider fleshing out human stories radical. Instead, Branagh's lavish version, beautifully designed (by three-time Academy Award-winner Dante Ferretti), and stunningly costumed (by Sandy Powell, who has three of her own Academy Awards), goes for big budget beauty both on the surface and beneath it.

Written by Chris Weitz, this Cinderella sets forth a theme of "courage and kindness" and does so early, bending all the characters, even unlikely candidates, such as the often bland Prince, to its will. Setting in motion properly detailed reasons for their behavior, as well as interior lives -- which are capably fleshed out by talented supporting players like Derek Jacobi (as the King) -- Weitz and Branagh give the cast more to hang on to than is normally required by overly familiar stories like this. They could have gone for sweeping gesture and, to their credit, did not.

Blanchett's Stepmother is full-tilt Mommie Dearest, which works for as long as it needs to, before she dials it back to reveal her character's desperation and trapped position in the world. Set in the unspecified far off time and place of all fairy tales, it's still grounded enough to understand that, throughout much of history, women's best historical option has been marrying well, and Blanchett's rage is based in her unlucky fate.

Balancing her, strongly, is James (Downton Abbey's Lady Rose) in the title role. The young star takes what could have been a thankless role of victimization and passive rescue and demonstrates a sturdy core. She gives too much but she's not broken, and remembers her humanity when justice is served. Her Cinderella would probably have figured out a way, eventually, to get her miserable housemates married off into advantageous arrangements, leaving her to her beloved family home and sweet, helpful mouse friends. She would have lived happily ever after no matter what. The movie seems to understand this, trusting itself to a world containing that level of strong, active goodness. And if the result is that your kids want to put on tiaras afterward and dream about becoming royalty, you can probably rest a little easier because of it.


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