Watching director Kenneth Branagh’s spin on “Cinderella” harkened me back in time to James Cameron’s “Titanic.” It was thrilling but not gripping, touching but not surprising.
The ship sinks. The slipper fits.
The conclusion is forgone, but still you find yourself oddly satisfied. And you have to think about why.
How can a film so predictable be so enjoyable?
And then you realize it. Certain classic stories – “Cinderella” is one of them – claw at the core of human truth. They reach something inside you so fundamental that the director simply needs to clear the way. Branagh’s uncluttered version of “Cinderella” – with relatable, skin-and-bone characters and minimal special effects – lets the story do its job. In fact, it does the job so effectively that adults may need to think twice before having the youngest of children see the movie.
There’s the beautiful but relatable heroine, played by 25-year-old British actress Lily James (Lady Rose from “Downton Abbey”), who tries to live by the words “have courage and be kind,” imparted to her by her dying mother. There’s the warm father figure, portrayed by Ben Chaplin, whose demise fully empowers the evil stepmother, icily conceived by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett.
Of course there’s the charming prince, who goes by “Kit” in this version of the story and stands up to his well-meaning but ill-intentioned father when deciding whom he shall choose to be his eventual queen.
Love wins – but you knew that already, unless you’re among the fairy-tale deprived. Like “Titanic,” the key to telling “Cinderella” is warming hearts with the story, not turning heads with the conclusion.
At this, Branagh – who is known for the simplicity of his storytelling – does fine work.
He begins with a girl named Ella (adorably played by 12-year-old Eloise Webb) who has a loving relationship with both parents but terribly misses her father, who is a traveling merchant, when he hitches the horse and buggy for frequent, long trips away. Ella’s happy life begins dismantling when her mother dies young, but she keeps a grip on her positive outlook and spends the next several years propping up her depressed father, even supporting him when he asks Ella’s blessing to remarry.
It’s here that the sweetness, strength and vulnerability of James’ now-grown Ella both blossoms and is tested. As her stepmother and stepsisters move in, she’s relegated to second-class status. When her father dies of illness on one of those long road trips, Ella becomes nothing more than a servant. She’s living in a dusty attic, befriending rodents and sometimes sleeping by the fire to keep warm. When her stepsisters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger) notice traces of ashes on her clothing and face, they bestow a new name upon her, adding “cinder” to Ella.
Blanchett’s stepmother character not only encourages this behavior, but sets the pace for it. She diminishes Cinderella at every turn, ultimately blocking her from attending a ball at which the prince will choose his future queen. Though Cinderella doesn’t realize it, she’s already met the prince (played by Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) on a horse ride in the woods; trying to appear normal, he passed himself off as a palace worker named Kit. Getting inside the royal grounds to find Kit is Cinderella’s sole motivation for attending the ball.
After her stepmother rips Cinderella’s dress and forces her to stay home from the ball, the magical fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) appears and in classic bibbidi-bobbidi fashion, turns a pair of lizards and a goose into carriage men, mice into horses and a pumpkin into the classiest buggy imaginable. The final touch is a pair of glass slippers, and Cinderella is on her way to the ball.
Here – and when the magic wears off at midnight and the carriage becomes a smashed-up pumpkin – is where the most vivid special effects splash across the screen. Between this computer-generated magic – which includes a horse chase that will have younger audience members gripping their armrests – you’ll find the most riveting scene: a dance between the prince and Cinderella that highlights James and Madden’s ballroom abilities thanks to masterful, emotional cinematography that reveals the characters’ emotions up close and their deftness from afar. It’s a scene that will please all. For the young, it’s the fantastical prom or wedding night dance. For the elders, meaning anyone who has had the time in life to experience a true romantic chase, it represents the epitome of what we seek when find – or lose – true love.
Here’s where it gets difficult: Because the film has real people, it depicts what can appear to be real death. There’s Cinderella’s mom, then dad, then another parental death that may catch some by surprise. All of it is done tastefully, and for most of the audience, those passings are part of the emotional ride. But for the youngest of potential patrons – little kids enraptured by “Frozen” and holding Disney princess birthday parties – watching a young girl sob over her mother’s death may be too much. It’s a warning to behold for a film that, from a storytelling perspective, does great justice to a classic story.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Running time: 112 minutes
Rating: PG for mild thematic elements.
The Lowdown: A retelling of the classic fairy tale about a young girl, a handsome prince and a glass slipper.