Considering Disney’s recent fascination with re-establishing their brand and
politics, sexual and otherwise, in their most famous (also see: problematic?)
stories – like Wicked-izing Sleeping Beauty into a tale of a rape revenge
anti-heroine in Maleficent, or dissecting the hard truth at the center of their
morals in Into The Woods – I can’t possibly express how truly refreshing it is
to get something from Disney without even a shred of irony. Or modern, dark
twists. Cinderella is just a pure, classic retelling in every conceivable way,
and that’s why it works as well as it does.
In 2015, the story of Cinderella is a real challenge. A meek servant girl, lowly
and abused until supernatural forces give her nice clothes and a luxe ride, goes
to a dance, where a prince is bewitched by her beauty. Curfew issues arise, but
luckily she has really tiny feet. Then they get married. Roll credits!
So how does one modernize such a bland, regressive narrative for the big screen?
The expected answer, given a slew of recent properties that attempt to add
sophistication to familiar lightweight source material by going dark is to
glamorize or complicate the evil characters while undermining the good ones. In
this model, the hero either turns morally ambiguous or serves as the boring foil
for a more magnetic adversary. Sensibilities shift from innocent to world-weary.
Yet with his live-action retelling of Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh
accomplishes a wonderful bit of spellwork: He manages to de-toxify Disney’s
flagship fairy tale without over-correcting away its sincerity, or charm. This
Cinderella, which stars Lily James as the ashes-to-sashes heroine and Game of
Thrones’ Richard Madden as her swain, believes in aesthetics without defaulting
to cynicism and irony. It takes no particular interest in the psychology of
Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters, although, in keeping with its overall generous
spirit, it does give them a sort of gentle benefit of the doubt, presenting
Drisella and Anastasia as harmless figures of fun. However Cate Blanchett’s evil
stepmom initially seems as matter-of-factly bad or deliciously vampy as the plot
requires, her motives are deepened: Since her first husband and true love died,
and now having to provide for her “beautiful, stupid daughters” perhaps the
universe has seen fit to squash her hopes and dreams. Conversely, though, the
film feels intensely interested in the rich and diverse forms of goodness
exhibited by Ella, the prince, the king, and Ella’s parents.
Another quality Branagh is surprisingly, refreshingly not obsessed with? Beauty.
Yes, his movie boasts stunning visuals—its storybook roses, fireworks, and
forests shot in softly glowing colors, its palace rooms and farmhouses quilled
with quaint detail. And sure, Ella is a creature of flaxen waves and
be-glittered cleavage. (Between her and the fairy godmother, whom Helena Bonham
Carter plays as a kind of mincing, magical Dolly Parton, the chests in this
movie are incredible. Bippity boppity boobs!) But in this version of the story,
the prince has fallen for Ella long before he sees her at the ball; he’s
attracted to her kindness and willingness to flout convention. “What’s done
isn’t the same as what’s right,” she suggests, at which point the prince,
pretending to be “Kit the apprentice,” pulls the most enraptured face you will
see in a movie theater all year. This Cinderella isn’t a heroine merely because
she’s “beautiful inside and out.” Her strengths prove more specific than that.
“Have courage and be kind” is the film’s echoing refrain: Ella’s mother first
says it on her deathbed; Ella, who repeats the motto under her breath in times
of ill treatment, makes it the guiding principle of her life. Her steadfastness,
admirable on its own, should tell us something
about the slippery way this movie handles power. Just as magic lets a mouse
become a footman, the right perspective can transfigure obedience into strength.
In Cinderella, compassion does not come easily; it calls for grit and sacrifice:
When a neighbor arrives to relay the news that Ella’s father has died, the young
woman chokes out, with visible effort: “Thank you. That must have been very
difficult for you.” Only after he is gone does she collapse against the door.
Yet Ella is neither a martyr nor a doormat. Genuinely joyous for much of the
film, she loves the lonely, drafty attic to which she’s exiled. Forbidden after
the ball from exposing her identity to the prince, she cherishes the memory of
the dance. Ella’s superpower is remaining unbroken, a free spirit, under
terrible constraints. She lives according to her values and discovers happiness
where others would be too unimaginative to look.
She’s virtuous, too, in the classical or medieval courtly sense, adapting
perfectly to the needs of the moment. When her father dies and the stepmother
must dismiss the servants to stave off financial ruin, Ella capably cooks and
cleans. When her stepmother refuses to buy her a dress for the prince’s soirée,
she fashions her own gown from a family heirloom. At the dance, as a prospective
queen, Ella must demonstrate that she can enchant a ballroom full of aristocrats
and commoners. Suddenly she is the most graceful, captivating woman on the
But this Cinderella, who, the narrator tells us, “sees things not as they are
but as they could be,” has an altogether rarer calling than ingénue or even
warrior. It’s a strange role for a fairy tale protagonist and especially for a
Disney princess, because it implies an oldness or maturity of soul. (Is that how
Branagh and his screenwriter, Chris Weitz, finally tempered the naiveté of his
source story?) Ella, alive to the potential in things and people, is an
She leads by example and by explicit instruction; her words fall like sediment
through characters’ minds until they are reproduced, slightly altered, in their
speech. Not only does Ella instruct the prince in kindness and fairness—the
script makes much of his status as “apprentice monarch” —but she finds time
during her breathless escape from the ball to tell the king how to be a father.
(Later, a marvelous, commanding Derek Jacobi shows that he has internalized the
lesson—that Kit has become his own man, and a good one—by allowing his son to
follow his heart.) And of course mothers and fathers (and stepmothers and
godmothers) lie at the heart of this film about pedagogy. In a genre that can be
pretty callous to moms and dads, Branagh has created a fairy tale movie where
both leads have tender, reverberating, centerpiece scenes with a beloved parent.
Branagh also makes space in his movie for old-fashioned wonder. Several in the
audience sighed at the first sight of Ella’s Uber to the ball, an extremely
delicate golden squash coach haphazardly piloted by a goose. When the heroine
floats down the spiral stairs of the palace, she is every inch the archetypal
fantasy princess the poster promised.
I haven’t mentioned Branagh’s vision of a fairy tale kingdom where nobles and
peasants of all races mix easily, a reminder of the director’s roots in modern
theatrical Shakespeare, where color-blind casting is the rule, not the
exception. But if Ella’s courage and kindness, and the film’s overall worthy
intentions, get a little tired after two hours, it’s nice to remember that
villains need not have the monopoly on rich, full, complicated inner lives. Nor,
in this our age of irony, are sincerity and depth mutually exclusive.