All words: Rachel Kurzius
Sudden illnesses kill off parents in the otherwise picturesque kingdom of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.
“Be kind and have courage,” Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) tells her young daughter (Eloise Webb) with her dying breath. By the time she drops dead off-camera, Ella (Lily James) has a selective memory about her mother’s final words.
“Be kind and have courage” the voiceover keeps reminding us, but by the way Ella acts, she seems to remember her mom saying, “Be kind and … *cough cough*.” At first, the film presents this kindness as a pastoral idyll: Ella lovingly feeds the geese and the (sadly mute) mice. She feels particularly responsible for upholding her family’s country lifestyle when her father (Ben Chapin) remarries a cosmopolitan widow (Cate Blanchett) with two daughters who dress like they’re in a Mindy Kaling fever dream. Unlike her new stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger, doing their best in thankless roles), Ella talks to the Help! Because, y’know, kindness!
But who cares about kindness when you can watch Blanchett’s pursed lips as the stepmother? This woman long ago mastered the art of boiling the frog, and she ushers her stepdaughter from a lady of the house into a scullery maid with nary a bead of sweat. Unfortunately for Cinderella, it’s more fascinating to watch a finely-made boot wipe the dirt off than focus a camera on the doormat for two hours.
All is not lost for our pal, the newly-monickered Cinderella, because the royals of the kingdom happen to have a doormat fetish. She and a sapphire-eyed Prince Charming (Richard Madden) meet cute on a pair of galloping horses. Their absolute euphoria after their interaction is charming because James and Madden both capture the essence of teenagers with crushes.
There’s a catch, though. Prince Charming must marry a princess. Live action movies generally feel the need to justify the dogma that keeps their plots humming along. In this case, the king’s advisors insist that Charming marrying a princess is about securing the security of the kingdom by forging alliances with other royals.
Considering Madden is best known for his role as the ill-fated Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, it is disconcerting to watch him argue yet again for marrying someone for love rather than strategic gain. Will you royals ever learn your lesson?
To be fair, Cinderella is aimed at an audience that has yet to watch Game of Thrones, but the lessons gleaned from this fairy tale still seem a little off. Namely, if you’re complacent long enough, a fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) will save the day for you. When Charming hosts a royal ball to find a bride (but really to see Cinderella again), Cinderella’s stepmom scoffs at the idea of her attending.
Cinderella deals with it the way she deals with everything: crying by herself and talking to mice. This is reason enough for some deus ex machina and a very cool bit of special effects. Carter is hilarious as a wizened fairy and Branagh teases all of the humor from turning a pumpkin into a carriage and especially a lizard into a footman.
The journey to the ball is far more fun than the destination. Branagh’s camera swooshes around to dizzying effect. Cindy and Charming are clearly into each other, but that doesn’t make it interesting for us to watch them after their well-choreographed dance is over.
We all know how Cinderella ends, though in live action it becomes clear what a squandering of resources the hunt for the owner of the glass slipper is. Most worrying is that the film ends without telling us they lived happily ever after. Still, I somehow doubt Disney’s next announcement is Cinderella 2: The Red Wedding.