New ‘Cinderella’ updates age-old fairytale with modern spectacle
Lily James, Cate Blanchett & Richard Madden
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Downton Abbey launched the acting career of Lily James as the rebellious young Lady Rose, a character who joined the show’s sizeable ensemble in 2012. Now, in her first major movie role, the 25-year-old actress steps outside the Downton manor and into the iconic glass slippers of the most famous rags-to-riches fairy tale of all time.
Actor-turned-director Kenneth Branagh’s lavish, live-action production of Cinderella hews closely to the once-upon-a-time basics of the centuries-old European folk tale, especially the version with which most modern-day viewers are most familiar, Walt Disney’s iconic theatrical cartoon of 1950. But Branagh fills the outlines of Disney’s animated characters with pounding human heartbeats, encourages robust performances from his fine, mostly all-British cast, and wraps it all up in a sumptuous package of colorful, to-die-for costumes, spectacular settings and lush cinematography.
This Cinderella is also built on a deep foundation of tenderness and forgiveness, an antidote to all the cruelty and unfairness that our Cinderella will ultimately face, and overcome. “You have more kindness in your little finger than most people possess in their whole body,” says her dying mother (Hayley Atwell) to the little girl, “Ella” (Eloise Webb), who will grow up to become the “ragged servant girl” eventually transformed—for one literally magical night—into the princess of all princesses.
Lily James is as lovely as sunshine as the grown-up Cinderella, whose limitless optimism and kind-heartedness endures even after the arrival of her “evil” new stepmother (Kate Blanchett) and her two mean, dingbat daughters (Sophie McShera, also from Downton Abbey, and Holiday Granger).
You know the rest. But one of the coolest things about Branagh’s movie is how he makes this familiar tale feel so fresh, even though you know exactly where it’s going. He stages it like a full-scale period drama rather than a bedtime story, and there’s an epic splendor to everything—sweeping vistas of coastlines and oceans of the British Isles; vast, ornate castle interiors teeming with extras and activity; the lonely spaces of Cinderella’s attic quarters and kitchen.
The ballroom sequence between Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden from Game of Thrones) is magnificent; the transformation of the pumpkin into a glistening, golden carriage—courtesy of the fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter)—is a thing of whimsical wonder; the climactic, kingdom-wide search for the foot that perfectly fits the left-behind slipper has intrigue, humor, edge and suspense.
Both James and Madden find characters beyond—and beneath—their starry-eyed storybook romance, and Blanchett maintains a delicious, delicate balance of coldness and camp.
This grand new version of Cinderella may not make you believe in fairytales. But it might make you think, like Cinderella, that with enough “love, kindness and occasionally, a little bit of magic,” the world might, indeed, become a better place.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine