IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 105 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Despite her mother dying when she was very young, Ella’s peaceful life is fine until she becomes a teenager and her father marries Lady Tremaine, who has two daughters of her own: Drisella and Anastasia. Ella welcomes her stepfamily warmly, despite the stepsisters’ unpleasant attitudes and her needing to protect her mouse friends from her stepmother’s cat, Lucifer, but soon afterwards Ella’s father goes abroad on business and also dies. This new loss results in Lady Tremaine revealing her true cold, cruel and jealous nature. Desperate for money, she dismisses the servants and forces Ella to do all their work while, along with her daughters, badly mistreating the poor girl who is mockingly called Cinderella when she awakes from sleeping by a fireplace with her face covered in cinders….
It’s rather depressing that Disney seem to be feeling the need to do new versions of stories that have become immortalised in their great animated movies, especially when neither Alice In Wonderland [and from Tim Burton no less] nor Maleficent were much good. Therefore one has a right to not expect much from their new Cinderella, even if one considers, like I do, the 1950 animated version to not be quite as impressive as the animated versions of Alice In Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty [which are both masterpieces]. Kenneth Branagh being chosen as director certainly didn’t bode well for the film considering he’s gone considerably down hill of late, culminating in the dreadful Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and nothing on writer Chris Weitz’s resumee has so far been anything special. And surely a tale like Cinderella just seems outdated to our times and would be seen by the so-good progressive,’right on’ bods at Disney to require some considerable alteration so the story and characters become barely recognisable, wouldn’t it?
Well, something odd has occurred. The film has actually, against all the odds, turned out to be very good, a gloriously old fashioned, fantastic looking piece of escapism that totally respects its source. Yes, there are a few additions to what is a very short tale, notably a first meeting between Cinderella and the Prince in the forest reminiscent, probably deliberately, of Sleeping Beauty, and a extra bit of drama towards the end which possibly even improves, for the purposes of a motion picture, a story which, at least in the Charles Perrault version which also formed the basis for the animated movie, climaxes rather un-dramatically. Now of course I’d more like to see a film version which uses as its basis the Brothers Grimm version with its wishing tree, foot mutilation [the flawed but very interesting Into The Woods touched on this, to the horror of many parents obviously unaware of the background] and eye gouging. One of the reasons I love the Grimm versions of these stories so much is how grim and even horrific some of them are, and I think this actually makes their important messages and lessons more easily learnt by children. But no, this 2015 film basically remakes the animated version with a bit more emphasis on the human characters. Occasionally this doesn’t quite work, such as the throwing in of Lucifer the cat who is only in a few scenes and seems put in just because he figured in a big way in the cartoon, while scenes which just copy ones in an earlier film always run the risk of coming up second best.
However, this Cinderella, while not at all ambitious and perhaps a bit constricted by its limitations [supposedly when this version was first being considered, original director Mark Romanek’s planned vision was much darker, something Disney soon nixed], does work very well and tries very hard to better the cartoon in some scenes, something it occasionally succeeds in doing, such as when the Fairy Godmother works her magic- there’s less of a sense of wonder, but you do get a really fun combination of great effects, humour and positively the finest golden carriage you will ever see. The only thing that really grates is Helena Bonham Carter’s narration, of which there is far too much and ends up often telling you what you are seeing. Its use smacks of both laziness and a slight condescending attitude on the part of the filmmakers.
The greater amount of time given to the back story allows for some surprising sadness near the beginning, with the death of Cinderella’s mother being possibly the most tear-inducing scene in a Disney film in quite some time [older Disney was often far harsher than newer Disney]. Soon after that it’s the turn of the father, and this film really dares to be depressing for quite some time, especially as this Cinderella, while still having animal friends, doesn’t sing to cheer herself up. Of course things do turn around and we get an especially stunning looking ball [with guest appearances, though you’d have to be a bit of a Disney freak to notice, of some of the dresses that previously adorned other Disney princesses]. When Cinderella and the Prince dance, it looks natural and not overly choreographed, because much of it was improvised by the two stars, yet still has a wonderfully romantic, innocent feel you just don’t get much of in movies today. This film, except for having some non-white cast members [you probably wouldn’t have got black noblemen in the time and world the film is vaguely set, but then this is a fairy tale], comes across much like a film from the 1950’s, and consequently it has come in for stick from politically correct types complaining that Cinderella is a push-over and endures abuse without fighting back [yeah, like every other heroine in a similar film these days] or running away [to where?]. Actually, the story teaches us the important lessons that sometimes you can’t get out of a bad situation, sometimes you have to stay and ‘tough it out’, and how kindness and optimism can often make a bad life easier to endure.
This film just looks fabulous, be it Dante Ferreti’s breathtaking, lavish sets or Sandy Powell’s vibrant, eye-popping costumes, helping to conjure up the glorious fairy tale world that you probably imagined when you used to read, or had read to you, fairy tales when you were a child. No, it’s not realistic that, for instance, poor townsfolk wear bright colours just like the rich folk, but isn’t it such a lovely counterpoint to all that drab realism that is so prevalent, sometimes even in films of this type? The total lack of irony is also really refreshing, though that’s not to say there isn’t humour, there actually being many well placed [if sometimes random] laughs throughout, like a funny scene with Rob Brydon as a beleaguered painter. A few of the special effects don’t quite convince, like some bits with the mice, and Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos are a little too fond of using the same camera set-ups after cutting to a different location, but it’s really quite astonishing that the two did such an amateurish job on Jack Ryan, and such a good job here. I suppose with Cinderella they genuinely believed in the material, though it’s also nice to see that Branagh seems to have got over his two-film flirtation with shakycam and hyper fast cutting.
Lily James [and what’s with the fuss about her waist? It’s her protruding collar bones that look more concerning] isn’t great in the title role but could have been far worse and does project an appealing innocence, while Cate Blanchett again makes a great villainess, though the film can’t resist giving her a couple of scenes which make her just a bit more sympathetic. Why can’t villains just be total and utter villains these days? Richard Madden makes for a bland Prince but then they usually are. Patrick Doyle, clearly relishing the chance to write a soundtrack that isn’t restricted by the deadening confines of much of current Hollywood film music thinking, provides a grand old-style music score, sometimes quoting the folk song Lavender Blue, rich in emotion and complex interweaving of themes. This Cinderella, while it doesn’t really do anything new, more than justifies its existence. Take away the CGI and it’s a film from another time, but that’s not a bad thing. And, come to think of it, it’s almost quite brave in that it tells us that girls are still allowed to dream of lavish balls, amazing dresses, handsome Princes and the like.